Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

What if God told you to kill someone? And your whole world, your epistemology, was founded on revelations from God, speaking softly in your head…

For the Morman Church, this is reality. It is part of their history, whether they like it or not.
Explaining -or more rightly- unravelling how this came to be is the task that Jon Krakauer sets himself in Under the Banner of Heaven.

To do this, Krakauer weaves the chilling murders of 24 year old Brenda Lafferty and her 15 month old daughter, Erica, by their fundamentalist brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron, with a history of the Mormon Church. He does this in a highly readable style; part investigative journalism, part narrative. Some visitors to this blog might be more familiar with Krakauer’s book about the 1996 Mt Everest tragedy, when 12 people died: Into Thin Air. Whilst Under the Banner of Heaven is nowhere near as compelling as Into Thin Air, it is still a hard book to put down; moreso when one considers that:

The respected sociologist Rodney Stark raised eyebrows in 1984 by predicting that there would be 265 million Mormons on the planet by A.D. 2080. After reassessing his calculations in 1998 to reflect more recent growth rates, Stark revised his prediction upward; now he believes that the LDS Church (Latter Day Saints) will have close to three hundred million members by the close of this century (pg. 321).

With such membership comes money and political clout. Which, I suspect, is something to be concerned about.

Krakauer’s book mainly discusses Mormon fundamentalists, their polygamy and violence towards non-members. However, quoting Professor Harold Bloom, he points out that:

And who can believe that the Mormons ever would have turned away from the practice of Celestial Marriage (polygamy), if it were not for federal pressure? … someday not too far on in the twenty-first century, the Mormons will have enough political and financial power to sanction polygamy again (pp.321-322).


I don’t really have anything against polygamy – unless it’s used as a way of abusing and repressing women – but polygamy is not part my cultural heritage. Nor is it the cultural heritage of most US citizens. I would not like to have it forced upon me.

Given what Krakauer reveals in his book though, it’s only a short stretch of the imagination towards the society depicted in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale unfolding if Mormon fundamentalists ever came to wield real power in the US.

If that’s not worrying enough, then there’s the revealing genesis of Mormonism itself. Revealing, because there is little doubt in my mind that most of the world’s religions (apart from Buddhism which does not ask for belief in any god, spirit or supernatural being) came about the same way: God spoke to someone – directly into his or her head.

That’s right – a revelation. Like Moses and the burning bush. Or the South Park episode which tells the story of Joseph Smith and the beginning of the Mormon Church (dum de dum dum dum). It’s someone claiming that god spoke to them – something which no one else can possibly disprove or prove- and convincing others that they have cornered the market on truth, morality and salvation -and you guessed it, deciding to start their own new religion.

What makes Mormonism any more believable than Scientology, the Ashtar Command, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the group who live near Hurstville in southern Sydney who worship garden gnomes?


If you are fascinated by the ideas of L.Ron Hubbard and his version of How We Came To Be Here, then read Krakauer’s book. The tale of Joseph Smith throwing seeing stones into a magic hat and coming up with a new version of The Way Things Are is no less fantastic.

Perhaps the only criticism I have of Krakauer’s book is that polygamy en-masse makes it tough to keep up with characters and kinship. There are sections of the book where the names of people and how they are related are confusing -even for an anthropologist used to complex Aboriginal kinship systems. This aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this insightful and well-written book. Many thanks to my former colleague Michael for lending it to me.


1 Comment

  • The polygamy practiced by the fundamentalist latter day saints is very much part and parcel with repressing women, but not just women. Because influential members of the church want to have lots and lots of wives, that means lots and lots of surplus males. For that reason, young men are excommunicated for the slightest offenses and sent away from their communities into a world that the’ve been raised to see as satanic.

    At the same time, it’s important not to lump the fundamentalists in with the majority of modern day mormons (even though, in the late nineteenth century, it’s true that the only difference is that those who became today’s mainstream mormons were willing to make a cynical deal with the government–with a new “revalation” coming very conveniently to allow for that…). Nowadays, most Mormons are no worse (if no better) than other conservative Christians in America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *