Review: Under the Banner of Heaven
Updated: May 6
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (2003)
I recently visited Salt Lake City (SLC), Utah for a conference, and had a chance to wander around the city and explore a bit. You cannot escape Mormonism in SLC. The temple is huge, and center-stage to the city (though behind scaffolding at the moment). Nearby there is a 28-story office building, a conference center that covers 1.4 million square feet, a smaller chapel called Assembly Hall, the Tabernacle that accommodates 3,500 people, and many more huge structures that cater to the church and it's devotees. And boy, are there devotees - they are everywhere.
Have you ever read A Wrinkle in Time? In it, the "children travel to the dark planet of Camazotz, which has succumbed to the Black Thing and where Meg's father is trapped because he would not succumb to the group mind that causes inhabitants to behave in a mechanical way. In order to find their father, Charles Wallace deliberately allows himself to be hypnotized. He takes Meg and Calvin to the place where Meg's father, Alexander, is being held prisoner. Charles Wallace then takes them to IT, the evil disembodied brain with powerful abilities that controls the planet." (from Wikipedia)
I felt like I was in Camazotz, and if I went inside any one of those towering buildings I would find IT.
During my visit I ended up doing a lot of Googling to learn more about the Mormon church, aka the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). I have a little bit of background knowledge - it's founder Joseph Smith "discovered" the engraved gold plates that make up the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, NY, just a 20-minute drive from where I grew up. I attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant twice before it was permanently shut down in 2020 - Hill Cumorah was an over-the-top pageant that depicted Smith's discovery of the plates, with over 700 cast members, 10 stages, pyrotechnics, a flying Jesus... and refreshments.
Smith grew up in NY amongst the religious fanaticism that was common to the time period. Eventually, he was run out of NY (accused of being a fraud), and fled to Ohio, then Missouri, and finally settled in Illinois. There he set up his church again, but was killed by a mob of religious dissidents, and his followers were forced to flee yet again - this time to the Salt Lake Valley, led by Smith's successor, Brigham Young.
The book goes back and forth between telling the story of the founding years of Mormonism, and the true-crime story of a 1984 double murder committed by two fundamentalist Mormons, Ron & Dan Lafferty. The Lafferty brothers had come to believe that God commanded them to kill their sister-in-law and her baby daughter, as punishment for convincing Ron's wife to leave him.
In vacillating between the two narratives, Krakauer seems to imply that the church is culpable for these murders, given its violent history, extremist sects, and perhaps because the religion itself was founded by basically a very inventive fraudster, womanizer, and (probably) pedophile. However, I'm not convinced this is any different than literally every other religion in its extremism, extremists, and violence. It's an interesting connection to explore, to be sure, and not entirely without merit. I do think, though, that Krakauer fails to recognize the humanity of the "common Mormon"... by that I mean that he does a lot of stereotyping and generalizing of the church's members. Just like any religion, I'm sure there are many followers living a relatively peaceful and normal life, identifying culturally with each other, and finding a sense of community in their common faith.
At any rate, I found the book interesting, if a bit repetitive and condescending. And about halfway through reading it I found out it's just been made into a series on HBO, so I may give that a try too.
A few photos from my visit to SLC:
Thank you to my cousin Brenda, for reminding me that I should read this book!
Up Next: Shrill, by Lindy West