Under the Banner of Heaven: A Book Review

Kyle Stephens

Jon Krakauer has forged a career by telling the stories of people who commit what seem to be irrational acts. Included among his tales is the disastrous 1996 attempt to scale Mt. Everest (Into Thin Air, 1997) and the young man who braved (unsuccessfully) the Alaskan wilderness armed solely with a bag of rice (Into the Wild, 1996). In his most recent book, the best-selling Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer examines a subject where the line between rationality and irrationality is much more porous, and thus more subjective: faith and fanaticism.

Under the Banner of Heaven opens by chronicling the 1984 murder of a suburban Utah woman, Brenda Lafferty, and her infant daughter, Erica. Their murders were committed by Ron and Dan Lafferty—her brothers-in-law—because they believed themselves ordered to do so by God. Under the Banner of Heaven is an attempt to understand the context in which this crime was committed, delving deeply into the history of Mormon Fundamentalism, an element of the only major religion birthed on U.S. soil. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and the Mormon Fundamentalists are each convinced that the other represents a perversion of God’s true revelation. Among their disagreements, the Fundamentalists believe that the LDS Church forewent an essential tenet when, in 1890 and due to pressure from the federal government, it abandoned polygamy as official church doctrine. Tracing the history of this split, Krakauer offers an overview of the origins of Mormonism, and explains the complexities of Mormon Fundamentalism as it is practiced today, from Mexico to Canada.

For example, he focuses on the town of Colorado City, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona, as an example of a modern American theocracy. Almost entirely composed of Mormon Fundamentalists, its citizens (or, if you prefer, members) live under the rule of a single man, the head of their Church. According to Krakauer, the mayor and police force answer to him, he arranges and approves all marriages (many of the brides being no more than fourteen or fifteen years old) and controls nearly all the property in town. Until recently, this man was a ninety-two year-old “tax-accountant-turned-prophet” named Rulon Jeffs. “Uncle Rulon” no doubt felt obliged to set an example, and carried out the commandment of “plural marriage” to, by Krakauer’s count, the extent of seventy-five wives and at least sixty-five children. Colorado City, and others like it, concludes Krakauer, is a society seemingly at odds with itself, in which absolute obedience is demanded and individual thinking little tolerated, all of which happens while emphasizing the need for a personal communication with God.

Returning to the crime that opens his book, Krakauer sees isolated places like Colorado City, with their seemingly opposed dichotomies, as providing clues to understand the murder of Brenda Lafferty and, more recently, even the abduction of Elizabeth Smart. How is it that intelligent, seemingly sane people commit such crimes, without remorse and in the name of piety? According to Krakauer, “as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane … there may be no more potent force than religion.” Although faith, Krakauer suggests, is an inherently irrational phenomenon, for Ron and Dan Lafferty, an act commanded by the Almighty was only too rational. In fact, for strict literalists such as these two brothers, divine dictation is likely the only legitimate rationale for any human action.

Krakauer offers no solutions; he does, however, provide insights into the more general topic of extremism; given the topics of his previous books, Krakauer may be uniquely qualified to offer his concluding assessment: “In any human endeavor, some fraction of its practitioners will be motivated to pursue that activity with such concentrated focus and unalloyed passion that it will consume them utterly…. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture.”

Although viewed as a controversial book by some members of LDS, Under the Banner of Heaven describes but one instance of people going to an extreme—and the stories of those who are immersed within it—with tactfulness and aplomb. Krakauer’s skill with language and command of the facts result in a cogent narrative that is as absorbing as it is disturbing.