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.