Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

830716Nonfiction — Doubleday, 2003. 393 pgs. Library copy.

Krakauer’s book about Mormon fundamentalism begins with the story of the Lafferty boys and the violent murder of Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter, Erica, on July 24, 1984 two of the Lafferty boys committed. The two brothers claim they were ordered by God to kill their sister-in-law and niece, and both align themselves with a fundamentalist, break-away sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons), the fastest growing religion in the world. (Because the two are not apart of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it would not be correct to identity them as FLDS.) Drawing from this fact, Krakauer delves into the development of this “American religion” and the, often troublesome, history of the religion founded by Joseph Smith.

When I first picked up Krakauer’s book, I was a little apprehensive about how much the narrative rests on a single, gruesome murder, and I honestly did not see the connection between the murder and Mormon fundamentalism. But I found the book to be a very interesting examination both of what religious extremism does the psyche and the history of this religion.

A simply chilling, if unsympathetic, look at Mormon faith, the conflict between Mormons and Gentiles (read all non-Mormons, including Jews) and between the upper echelon of LDS leaders and U.S. government completely fascinated me. As for Mormon fundamentalists, Krakauer likens them to the proverbial uncle everyone avoids at family functions — the one that should not be heard and not seen. He manged to maintain a distinguish between LDS and FLDS (as well as other fundamentalist sects), in my opinion, but he does draw a thread through his discussion of the church’s history and theology that connects its underlining of direct communication with God and charismatic leadership with the manifestations of particular elements in fundamentalist Mormon communities that makes it easy to understand why the fundamentalists appear more like the crazy uncle than a completely different religion.

Despite skipping a few pages here and there that dealt more with the Lafferty brothers and their villainous act, I found Krakauer’s book to very interesting. Rather than concentrating on polygamy like other nonfiction books covering Mormon fundamentalist, Krakauer covers the shared history between the two groups and how FLDS can still be considered “Mormon”.


  1. The Mormon faith is really intruiging to me, since it seems to grow so fast. I had a small introduction to the faith in class one day, but it all seemed a bit confusing to me. I might want to pick this up, although I often find it hard to deal with books who are outspokenly negative in their opinion on a faith.


    • I found that Krakauer wasn’t overly negative about the Mormon faith. He pointed out a lot of troubling features and things my LDS friends would never admit is in their church’s past, but I felt like he was say “you’re stupid if you follow the Mormon doctrine”.

      I just put out a call for books about the Mormon faith that don’t deal with the fundamentalist sects of the religion so we’ll see what comes of that.


  2. Krakauer’s thesis was not primarily that Mormonism tends toward violence.

    It was that religious belief in general leads to violent behavior.

    A rather tenuous thesis in my opinion. I also wonder if Krakauer would lay the blame for the Columbine High School shootings at the feet of atheism.

    Fair’s fair after all.


  3. I, by the way, had a wonderfully embarrassing experience with a colleague based on Krakauer’s book about Mormons and Mormonism. It was totally my bad, but anyway.
    I must admit that I’m not big on religion or on fanaticism. It is interesting to think of Mormonism and to study it, since it is a true, home-grown U.S. religion.


  4. I don’t think that he was asserting that “religious belief in general leads to violent behavior.” I think that he made it quite clear that these men were delusional and even, at some points, on drugs. I thought that his comparison between the Lafferties and the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart was smart, because he was able to contrast their behavior with the behavior of the smart family, who are harmless devout mainstream Mormons.


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