Saturday, February 6, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

A long, long time ago, I started listening to this as an audio book and remembered wishing I'd have finished it. I took advantage of a business trip to read the hard copy I picked up a little while back.

Krakauer is best known for his work on outdoors books, and if this book is any indication I can see why. Turning his sights on America's best known home-grown religion, Krakauer weaves a modern story of incest, polygamy, and murder with the founding of the Mormon religion. The former is tightly linked to the latter, as Krakauer makes clear.

Mormonism, founded on the imagination of a dubious man with a large sexual appetite, Joseph Smith, has always had a violent history as it tried to find a niche in American society. Moving from New York to Missouri to its eventual home in Utah, the fledgling Mormon religion fought its neighbors constantly and used a patter of lies to stay alive. Only when it became obvious that it could not survive alone, Krakauer notes, does the Mormon faith try to mainstream itself.

But those roots of individuality that set the Mormons apart never left the religion permanently, and splinter groups try to carry on under the old ways. The trouble with a faith that allows you to talk directly to God is that anyone can get their own revelations.

This is where the murder case comes in. The perpetrators of the crime took to the extreme views of hard-line Mormonism and used them to exact revenge against a woman who scorned them and her infant. Similar tales pepper the pages of this book, as various self-proclaimed prophets use the voice of God to do terrible things to other people. Krakauer uses interviews, news reports, and historical sources to tell the stories, many of which would not reach outsider ears otherwise.

The modern murder case is by no means new. Krakauer goes back into time to show us the series of conflicts the Mormons had at almost every stop, with the largest being the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Mormons, disguised as Native Americans, butchered a party bound for California and then scapegoated one member for the crime. As per usual, this was all done in the name of God, though clearly it was the act of selfish, evil men trying to hold on to their claims.

There's a song whose title I can't remember that talks about "do it in the name of Heaven" and that's very appropriate here. Smith adds polygamy to cover his adulterous affairs and starts getting revelations about those who oppose the idea, right down to his wife. Ron, the co-killer of the main murder story, gets all sorts of revelations telling him to "remove" those who oppose his decisions. Dreams telling people to get spiritual wives who can't even drive a car abound. It's sickening to read at points, and Krakauer is unflinching in his presentation. All in all, the history of the Mormon Church doesn't have a lot going for it.

But before you start to dismiss Mormonism as a crock, consider this--how many radical Christians twist the words of the Bible for their own ends and claim to hear god? Is Pat Robertson and his insane proclamations representative of protestants everywhere? Krakauer warns to be cautious before passing judgment, as the belief system of just about every religion can be seen as fanciful to those on the outside.

Krakauer brings up a further point on this score--Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad have the advantage of starting their faiths before the age of extensive written records. Would they be just as derided if they started in the 19th Century, as Smith did?

This is not to say that Krakauer finds the Mormon origin story credible--it's pretty obvious he does not--but I appreciate how he takes care to remind people to be be careful how they are judging those who follow a different belief path from themselves.

In the end, Krakauer's book is a condemnation of all extremists in any religion. He just uses the mirror of a few radical Mormons to do it. This theme would be the same if he were writing about Jerry Fallwell or any other fundamentalist from any other sect. After all, is the desire of the Mormons to conceal their cloudy past any different from that of the Catholic Church?

What makes Mormons so fascinating, both to Krakauer and those on the outside, if its habits are not so far off from other religions? I think it's partly because of the way the religion is still evolving. We can't go back and see the meetings at Nicaea, but we can watch as a bigoted church opens its doors to African Americans. Flawed or not, it gives us a window into the ever-changing nature of faith. After all, millions join the Mormon church--it's one of the fastest growing sects. There has to be an appeal, and perhaps its the idea of structured individuality that appeals to so many and that keeps those harmed by the religion coming back for more.

It's also true, however, that that support of individual faith is exactly what causes Ron and Dan to kill, allows eighty year old men to take teenagers as brides, and puts those at odds with true believers right in the cross hairs. As with America's peculiar culture in general, the Mormon faith has limitless potential for both good and evil--it's all in how its used.

Maybe that's why we're drawn into learning more--by analyzing Mormons, we can analyze ourselves at a safe distance, whether it is about our faith, our independence or our capacity to harm.

If you are looking for a history of the Mormon church that is more than names and dates and gets into the heart of the matter, or if you like reading true crime stories, you'll find Under the Banner of Heaven to be a great fit. It may not be written on golden plates, but at least you don't have to read it out of a hat!


  1. Good review! I read this, too, though I had a lot less to say about it. My strongest memory of reading this book is boggling at all the people who just accepted all of Joseph Smith's (seemingly obviously transparent) "revelations" that furthered his own agenda.

    But you are right--the customs of any religion are going to look weird to an outsider. I heard a piece on NPR the other day in which a Haitian woman described some of their religious practices, and they were indeed quite bizarre. But, y'know, believing that a wafer turns into flesh is kind of strange, too, if it's not the practice you grew up with. :)

  2. Let me ask you something.

    Do you consider the teenage killers at Columbine high school to be a case of "extreme views of hard-line atheism?"

  3. Although... I will admit you've given a fairer opinion of Mormonism than most I've heard reviewing this particular book.

  4. Seth,

    I did not see your comments until now. I thought I had notification on, but I guess not.

    To answer your question, I don't believe that hard-line views on anything is healthy and I don't think hard-like atheism is helpful to anyone, either. I think we are all better served when we see the gray in everything.

    That might be part of why my opinion is fairer than most? I knew a girl who felt lost who converted to Mormonism and she thought she was a better person who had people who cared about her. As long as they weren't making her do bad things, who am I to question that? I saw her a few years later and she seemed just as happy. Seems to be that's the best thing a religion could do for a person--make them happy.

    One last digression--when I was having trouble walking a few years ago, the only people to offer me help were the local Mormon missionaries. I declined, but I appreciated the offer. If that's what your religion is teaching you, how can that be bad, even if I personally find some of the ideas a bit strange?

    As for the tragedy at Columbine, I don't know enough to state my opinion one way or the other. My memory of that is still the shock and horror of seeing it on the big screen at college. If extremist views caused them to kill in the name of no god, then I would condemn that just as strongly as those who killed in the name of their God.

    No idea if you'll ever read this, but there's my two cents. Take care.

  5. Fair enough. Thanks for the clarification.

    If you're interested, an LDS advocacy group has published a response to "Under the Banner of Heaven." The PDF can be downloaded at this link: