Monday, March 11, 2013

Re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven

          I have stated multiple times that I was in my mid-twenties when I found out that Joseph Smith had married multiple women, including teenagers and women who already had husbands. Although this is technically true, I find that my story of enlightenment about Mormon history is considerably more complex than I had realized. It is true that I did not learn these facts in church. While re-reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
, I discovered that these facts were hidden in plain sight, if only I had taken the time to look. 
          The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven”, I was in college and only a few years out of Mormonism. I remember reading the gory details of this book – the tangled messes of polygamous families, the horrible downslide of the Lafferty brothers, and the devastating murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter – and dismissing them as having nothing to do with the mainstream Mormon church that I grew up in. My primary reflex was to dismiss anything to do with polygamy as being not-really-Mormon. My secondary reflex was to dismiss any account of Mormon history written by a non-Mormon. These reflexes were there in spite of the fact that by that time I was an atheist who had made the conscious decision to leave the Mormon Church.
          On page 5, Jon Krakaeur states

“The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith – still the religion’s focal personage – married at least thirty-three women and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.”

          I did read this book when I was younger and yet the details about Mormon history, including Joseph Smith’s polygamous past and some of the more violent aspects of the early teachings, went straight over my head. There were a lot of details that I missed the first time around – the full import of the early teachings about polygamy, the more unsavory aspects of the early leaders, the connection between the early teachings about polygamy and modern Mormon fundamentalists, and the brutality of the blood atonement taught by Brigham Young. The first time reading this book, I ignored the history because it didn't agree with the lessons I grew up with. I also think that I ignored the history because I needed to protect myself. It is not an easy task to examine the short-comings of the religion you grew up with.
          The truth is, reading this book was an uncomfortable experience. There was a lot that was familiar, even within the story of the Lafferty boys. I was raised with a pretty literal interpretation of Mormonism; my father is the type of person who takes the words of the leaders at face value. The visions and revelations of the fundamentalists described in this book are eerily similar to the visions and revelations described by the early leaders. Within this book are the stories of people that took the words of the early Mormon leaders in a very literal sense and twisted them into a violent conclusion.
          I too was raised to take the words of the leaders at face value; to recognize that commonality, no matter how different I may be, is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling.
          Nowadays, the Mormon leaders are very careful about what history they do and do not teach. The majority of Mormons, including the ones I grew up with, are just people that are trying to live a good life according to the standards expected of them. The majority of them will live decent, upstanding lives. No one talks about polygamy anymore and the more radical teachings of the early leaders are being buried under a carefully constructed amnesia. But the words of the leaders are, according to the Mormon teachings, the words of God himself. This is the lesson I learned. This is also the lesson that the Lafferty boys learned.


  1. I didn't read this one but recently read about "The 4'O Clock Murdeers" by Scott Anderson. this sounds a lot like the LaBaron family who also believed that tehy should follow "the one mighty and strong" blindly. according to Anderson at the time he went to press, in 1993, there were still many memebers of that cult on the loose. I don't know if it is still true but I have noticed that tehre are some LeBarons, related or not, in the Warren Jeffs cult which wasn't associated with Ervil's cult as far as I know.

    There seem to be a surprising number of these high profiel murders including Mark Hoffman and in the RLDS Jeffery Lundgren and many more.

    I'm sure these are only the most extreme but still it seems like a lot.

    1. Honestly, the book is worth a read - Krakauer does a good job at drawing some of the connections between the earlier teachings and the mindset of fundamentalists, including the Laffertys.

      Funnily enough, one of the Lafferty brothers was cellmates with Mark Hofmann.

  2. My experience reading 'Under the Banner of Heaven' was similar to yours. What has stayed with me is that all of this was taking place right under my nose and I didn't know of it. I was struck hard with the reality of how naive I was and what a sheltered existence I had. How could I be so oblivious and unaware. Another book that was eye opening, and that I highly recommend, is 'The Sins of Brother Curtis'.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one with this experience - I felt quite sheepish to tell the truth. I checked out The Sins of Brother Curtis on amazon - I'll probably put it on my list of books to read, although reading books like this can be quite emotionally draining.

  3. Omg.

    this book really tore me one; I wish everyone would read it.

    the Mormon criticism of this book is so beyond freaky. I feel like krakauer was as fair as fair could be and he now knows more about the religion than most of it's practicers do.

    reading about those brothers, and thinking how similar their upbringings were to ours is chilling. I still hear lil bits of crazy when people talk about what god would have them do.

    this book was the first time I knew anything about a peep stone, or js's many many wives. I was sick.

    i could only think one thing:

    if this is the One true church then why would there be anything to hide?

    God doesn't hide, but people with agendas do.

    my mom still calls me "fault finder."

    1. Sometimes I think outsiders, if they do their research thoroughly, have a far better chance of seeing things clearly than people who are in the middle of everything. And I was surprised at how spot-on Krakauer was.

  4. I read this book too a few years back, when Yearning for Zion Ranch and the FLDS were in the news. It makes for disconcerting but enlightening reading.

    By making you uncomfortable and showing you ugly parts of LDS history, the book opened your eyes and helped you think.

  5. The fact of these 48 or so women were actually Joseph Smith's lawfully wedded wives is doubtful; however there is solid evidence of Joseph Smith being sealed to multiple wives inside the temple. How can this be? Joseph smith knew fully well that the commandment by God had been given not to practice polygamy at this time. But likely due to impatience and lust, I'm guessing that he rationalized he could have a spiritual wife that was not his earthly wife. So that women could be married to other men during this life, but then be married to him in the next life. Now obviously this thought processing is twisted and evil to suit his own lustful desires, and was probably what lead to the beginning of his downfall. As you should know that any prophet who breaks a commandment of God like that is removed from his place by death.

    Therefore I find it no surprise that it was Joseph Smith's destroying a printing press that was out to expose his spiritual wifery that lead him to Carthrage jail where he was murdered. I also do not find it surprising that it was a group of angry Free Masons that shot and killed him. In my mind, I can clearly see Joseph smith's own mistakes killing him in the end, but his followers being too blind by their love for the fallen prophet to see that.

    I do not think Joseph Smith being removed from his place disqualifies him as a prophet, and means that he's going to hell. (Not that it would mean anything to an atheist, but it is not our place to say how God will judge a man for his mis-actions during this life.) Perhaps it would be good that even Moses and his brother Aaron were removed from their places for likewise disobeying the commandments of God. You'll find the story within the book of Numbers where Moses smote the rock.

    In conclusion I simply want to say that I don't know if Joseph Smith told a 14 year old girl that she had to be sealed to him in the temple and have sex if she wanted to go to heaven or not. But if he did tell a 14 year old girl that, in my mind the sin is next to rape. Nevertheless, it is not my place to judge a man. God judged him to death in this life, let God decide whether or not if he will experience a second death in the life to come. Let us not get a hissy fit over it, thinking we're God.

    All this is my opinion, and I share it with the perspective that Joseph Smith was a prophet, the book of mormon as the word of God, but that prophets only speak the word of God inasmuch as the Holy Spirit witnesses to our heart of the truth that they are supposedly speaking.

    1. You could take that interpretation. It just doesn't explain how Joseph Smith was able to get away with this for so long before getting killed and it also doesn't explain why Brigham Young lived such a long life, even while teaching blood atonement and polygamy. I don't expect these men to be perfect but I do expect them to act in a manner that befits their message.

      But this is just my opinion and I don't mean to detract from yours.

  6. Yep, that book was an eye-opener. I really liked the way it laid out all the facts. The author went out of his way to be thorough and (dare I say it) fair to those he interviewed and wrote about. A lot of LDS (even NOMs) don't like the book because they think it's "sensationalist" or something. To the contrary, I think it was under-stated rather than over-stated in its conclusions.

    1. I did notice he was under-stated in his conclusions - in the later printing of the book, he added an extra section after the conclusion where he addressed the points brought up by apologists.

  7. I've been meaning to sit down and read your take on this book - I'm a huge fan of Krakauer's writing and I felt the book seemed fair and, typical of his writing style, loaded with history and background. When I lived in Arizona, I developed an interest in the FLDS and understanding its ties to and differences from LDS. Focusing more on the FLDS side of things, I recommend Sam Brower's "Prophet's Prey." Krakauer had a hand in getting it published, and it serves as a good follow-up to "Under the Banner of Heaven."


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