Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

publication date: 2003
pages: 373
ISBN: 0-385-50951-0

Why? Why did I read Under the Banner of Heaven? More importantly, why did Jon Krakauer write it?

Under the Banner of Heaven explains, sometimes in inane detail, sometimes in maddeningly broad conclusions, the history of the Mormon faith. The book discusses the history of Mormonism, from its inception with Joseph Smith in New York, to its exodus to Missouri and Ohio, and to its final resting place in Utah under Brigham Young. It then describes the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter by Brenda’s brothers-in-law.

However, Under the Banner of Heaven isn’t a history text. Although I am not a history buff, I enjoy history and I enjoy reading about the events of the past. But this book is not a history book, as evidenced by Krakauer’s derision toward his subjects, and sometimes even toward his victims. One small example of this is when Krakauer is discussing Ervil LeBaron, a fundamentalist Mormon who murdered another fundamentalist leader. Krakauer describes LeBaron as “240 pounds, stood six feet four inches tall, and knew how to nurse a grudge. A dashing figure, he was found irresistibly attractive by many otherwise sensible women.” Shut up, Krakauer! Don’t even attempt to understand the “many” “sensible women” who dared find a man “irresistibly attractive.” Throughout the book, passages like this indicated to me that Krakauer has no respect for the people he is discussing; unfortunately, these weren’t characters, these are real people who deserve dignity.

Additionally, Krakauer seems to equate run-of-the-mill Mormonism with fundamental Mormonism, even though he admits that the Mormon church commonly renounces fundamental sects. As an example, Krakauer discusses the Mormon fundamentalist sect in Colorado City, Arizona, which the Mormon church has renounced, and then applies his fundamentalism research to Mormonism as a whole. This is a major logical and historical misstep. If the Mormon church has explicitly stated that “No, we don’t agree with what is happening down there in Colorado City, and, in fact, let us help you stop it,” then what lessons does Krakauer expect me to learn about Mormonism, its history, and its future?

So, if it’s not history then what is it? Is it persuasion? Is Krakauer trying to convince me that all Mormons are bad, that I should distrust all Mormons I meet on the street? Or should I believe that all religions are noxious? (In that vein, it’s probably no coincidence this book was published shortly after 9/11.) To be honest, I’m just not sure.

Krakauer also has an aggravating writing style. He rarely attached an exact number to a figure; instead, the things in question were “numerous” or “legion.” For example, Brian David Mitchell was one of “untold multitudes currently practicing polygamy throughout the western United States, Canada, and Mexico.” How many is a multitude? Fifty? Six thousand? Half a million? Does Krakauer even know? And why are they “untold?” Only because Krakauer didn’t actually tell? Krakauer’s prose also contained an inordinate amount of flourish. A child is a “pint-size tornado with a pertinacious blond cowlick.” A meadow that was the site of Mormon violence is a “bucolic sanctuary . . . now synonymous with one of the most chilling episodes in the history of the American West – an episode that exemplified the fanaticism and concomitant brutality of a culture that would be so enthusiastically idealized a century later by Dan Lafferty and his fundamentalist brethren.” What a mouthful!

The subject matter of Under the Banner of Heaven was undoubtedly interesting. However, you’d be better off just Wikipedia-ing Mormonism.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Entertainment Weekly

2 comments on “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

  1. Rachel A says:

    I read the other three reviews and they were generally positive, describing the book as a “fascinating exploration” and an “arresting portrait of depravity”. Why would you say it is that you have come to such an opposite conclusion? Maybe the fact that the other reviewers seemed to be clear that its subject was fundamentalist, not “run-of-the-mill” Mormonism has something to do with it, since you weren’t exactly sure which he was forming his arguments around…

  2. I purposely picked these reviews because they were different from my own because maybe this book would float somebody else’s boat. Although, when I discussed this book with my book club, the response was generally positive. I don’t know why my response was so different, maybe I am more sensitive to the issues I raised in my review. To answer your specific question, I thought the book pretty clearly conflated fundamentalist and “regular” Mormonism, and I don’t know how a reader could think otherwise. Great questions!

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