Under the Banner of Heaven

blood brothers

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith’ is a 2003 investigative nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer. It is a juxtaposition of two stories: the origin and evolution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and a modern double murder committed in the name of God by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who subscribed to a fundamentalist version of Mormonism.

The title is drawn from an 1880 address by John Taylor, the third president of the LDS Church, defending the practice of plural marriage: ‘God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the Government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different…’

The Laffertys were formerly members of a very small splinter group called the School of Prophets, led by Robert Crossfield (known by his prophet name Onias). The group accepts many beliefs of the original church at the time when it ceased the practice of polygamy in the 1890s but does not identify with those who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons. The book examines the ideologies of both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the fundamentalist Mormons polygamous groups, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (‘FLDS’).

The book opens with news accounts of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica. Brenda was married to the youngest Lafferty brother, Allen. Older brothers Dan and Ron targeted their sister-in-law because they believed she was the reason Ron’s wife left him (after refusing to allow him to marry a plural/second wife). Both men’s extremism reached new heights when they became members of the School of the Prophets founded and led by Robert Crossfield. After joining the school, Ron claimed that God had sent him revelations. Communication with God is a core belief of fundamentalist Mormonism as well as the mainstream LDS Church. Ron showed the members of the School of Prophets a written ‘removal revelation’ that allegedly called for the killing of Brenda and her baby. After other members failed to honor Ron’s revelation, the brothers quit the School.

The murders were particularly cruel, with Dan claiming that he slit the victims’ throats. However, at trial, Chip Carnes, who was riding in the getaway car, testified that Ron said he had killed Brenda and that Ron also thanked his brother for ‘doing the baby.’ The police eventually found the written ‘revelation’ concerning Brenda and Erica. After the press widely reported that Ron had received a revelation to kill Brenda and Erica, the Lafferty brothers conducted a press conference at which Ron pointed out that the ‘revelation’ was not addressed to him, but to ‘Todd’ [a drifter whom Ron had befriended while working in Kansas] and that the revelation called only for ‘removal’ of Brenda and her baby and did not use the word, ‘kill.’

After opening with the Lafferty case, Krakauer goes into the history of Mormonism, starting with the early life of Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the movement, following his life from a trumped up criminal fraud trial to leading the first followers to Jackson County, Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois. While violence seemed to follow the Mormons wherever they went, it wasn’t necessarily the Mormons’ doing, as Krakauer points out. Early Mormons faced severe religious persecution, due to their unorthodox beliefs, including polygamy, and their tendency to deal economically and personally only with other Mormons. This led to violent clashes between Mormons and non-Mormons, culminating in Smith’s death on June 27, 1844 at the hands of a mob while he was jailed in Carthage, Illinois, awaiting trial for ordering the destruction of the printing press of a local publication that painted him in a negative light.

From Nauvoo, the Mormons trekked westward to modern-day Utah, led (after some controversy) by Smith’s successor Brigham Young. Arriving in what they called Deseret, many Mormons believed they would be left alone by the federal government, as the territory was under Mexican rule at the time. This hope died soon after their arrival, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgowas signed on February 2, 1848, ending the Mexican–American War and ceding the land to the United States.

Mormonism’s problems weren’t all external, as Smith’s highly controversial revelation of plural marriage threatened to tear the faith in two. The Utah territory was a theocracy ruled by self-appointed governor, Brigham Young, and Utah was denied statehood for 50 years due to the practice of polygamy. Finally, on September 23, 1890 Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints officially banned the practice of plural marriage after having received a revelation from God denouncing polygamy, and Utah was granted statehood (however, polygamy remained a secret practice until the early 1900s). After the Woodruff ‘revelation,’ some members broke away from the mainstream church to form what eventually became the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the most popular group of fundamentalist Mormonism. The FLDS church encourages polygamy.

Krakauer examines events in the LDS history and compares them to modern-day FLDS doctrine (or even less mainstream versions of Mormonism, such as the Crossfield School of the Prophets). One of these events is the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormons and some local Paiute Indians rounded up and murdered approximately 120 members of the Baker–Fancher party of emigrants. While the Mormons went to great lengths to conceal any involvement in the massacre (including dressing as Paiute Indians and painting their faces in similar fashion), the only person successfully convicted in the affair was John D. Lee, a member of the LDS Church, who was executed by the state in 1877 for his role in the crime.

In advance of the book’s release, managing director of the Church History Department of the LDS Church Richard E. Turley argued that the book contained mistakes and incorrect assertions and accused Krakauer of ‘condemn[ing] religion generally.’ In the 2004 paperback edition of the book, Krakauer responded to these allegations. Further criticism from Mike Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the LDS Church, condemned Krakauer’s use of religious ‘zealots’ to draw violent conclusions about all Mormons. Upon finishing the book, Otterson claims, ‘One could be forgiven for concluding that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency to violence. And so Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi, every Japanese a fanatic, and every Arab a terrorist.’

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