Book Saloon: Those Zany Mormons

Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of a Violent Faith

Jon Krakauer, 2003

Having torn through Krakauer’s earlier books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, I had every expectation that this book would be an up-all-night page-turner, and I wasn’t disappointed.  What I didn’t expect, though, was that it would end up being a pretty scathing portrait not just of Mormon Fundamentalism, but the larger Mormon Church as well.  It begins with the discovery of the brutal murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month old daughter at the hands of two of her husband’s brothers, then leaps back to Joseph Smith’s “discovery” of golden tablets in Palmyra, NY from which he purportedly transcribed the book of Mormon.

While I was vaguely familiar with the rather improbable beginnings of the Mormon Church and its repeated, violent clashes with “Gentiles” in Missouri and Nauvoo, Illinois that finally led the “Saints” to the Utah territory, I had been blissfully unaware of the scandalous and often tawdry origins of some of its more controversial tenets, like, say polygamy.  And what do you know, but it turns out that the whole “Plural Marriage” thing came about because ol’ Joseph Smith, like most men, harbored hankerings for comely young lasses not his wife.  Of course, unlike most men, Joseph fancied himself a prophet, so instead of just accepting that he was a pervy heel, he had a revelation, and God told him, unsurprisingly, “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”  He even had a specific revelation addressed to his understandably skeptical wife, who was always threatening him with rolling pins and whatnot.  She didn’t fall for it.

But he did, and in the patriarchal social order of Mormonism, his revelation gained a lot of popularity, especially with the men.  When the official church reluctantly abandoned polygamy in the late 19th century, prodded by an increasingly adamant Federal Government, a lot of middle-aged Mormons who’d grown accustomed to adding a new teenaged virgin to the harem every few years reacted about as you’d expect.  Unfavorably, let’s say.

But despite its authoritarian nature, the Mormon Church has always carried an Achilles heel, the ramifications of which  Joseph evidently gave insufficient thought.  Since all Saints are taught that they can talk to God, and receive revelations of their own, it was perhaps inevitable that many of them would hear different things than did the hierarchy, and when God told them, say, “Of course you can take that 14-year old as your eighth wife,” or “It’s time that you kill a bunch of people so I can complete my work,” well, who’s going to argue with God?

Which brings us to the Lafferty murder.  The five Lafferty boys, hailing from a mainstream (comparatively) Mormon family, became besotted with a book called “The Peace Maker,” which was published by Joseph’s printing house back in Nauvoo.  And what a book it was; unlike those dastardly Muslims, who only get their 70 virgins after death, Mormons could start right in on their virgins, today, if one was handy, and better yet, their wives could either like it or lump it.  Of the five wives involved, none were very keen, and one of them finally left when her husband not only lost everything and refused to work, pay taxes, or obey traffic laws, but also started whacking her around too much.  He didn’t take kindly to such effrontery, and as luck would have it, God came along and told him that the people who helped her escape needed killing, including his youngest sister in law and her baby.

Steeped not only in the Mormon tradition of following orders, but also in the violent history of the early faith, Ron and Dan Lafferty followed through, gruesomely.  The narrative weaves back and forth between their subsequent trials and various Mormon murders and massacres of its pioneer era, and as I read I was astounded that a racist, sexist, homophobic church so drenched in blood and tainted by recurrent scandal could survive to become the globe-straddling behemoth it is today.  I was also amazed at the bravery it took for Krakauer to write such a book, and wondered what, if any, retaliation he faced.

Fortunately, I was reading the paperback edition, so the church’s official response was included in the appendix.  To my surprise, it only differed with niggling details here and there, and books it cited for support were all church approved, and none too flattering, either:   ….”Also, Joseph Smith did tend to marry women who stayed in his house or in whose house he had stayed.”  Indeed.

Mitt Romney had better hope that nobody reads this book, if he is the nominee, because it shows that Christian Fundamentalists are right about one thing, anyway:  Mormonism is a cult.  And a spooky one, to boot.



  1. dirigo says:

    Seems some Greek and Armenian clerics are having a hard time getting along this season in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

    May be some bats in the belfry there (along with the broom fights).

    Or nuts in the nave.

  2. nswfm says:

    CH, thanks for the book report. I don’t think the Mormon cult-church was so brilliant with Prop 8 in California, either.

    • cocktailhag says:

      If you mean they set themselves up for a backlash, not too brilliant. But they did “win,” for the time being. Considering that they didn’t let black people in until 1978, and still think interracial marriage is a sin, I doubt they’ll come around very soon.

  3. Ché Pasa says:

    Ah, the Mormons. Being of the Lapsed Catlick persuasion, I’ve been cheerfully proselytized by my Mormon friends for the last 40 years, with no discernible effect, but I was given a handsomely illustrated book called “The House of the Lord.” It describes in great detail the construction, the purpose and the function of the various Mormon Temples, details the rituals and ceremonies that take place therein, and displays their frankly Victorian Whorehouse interiors (with brazen baptismal fonts in constant use) in exquisite color photographs.

    Say what you will about your local Cathedral, these Mormon jobs can take your breath away.

    Meanwhile, the history of this American cult is fascinating. And quite bloody. The thing of it is, the Mormons are incredibly successful, stunningly so. It started to get to me a few years ago when I was running into all these Samoans and Tongans who had converted to Mormonism and had come to the United States to be close to their Church. Wha???

    Anyway, “Under the Banner of Heaven” sounds like a ripping yarn, one to curl up by the fire with. I will have to track it down!


    • cocktailhag says:

      Yeah, I’m a catlicker, too. Or was. Came in handy going into various cathedrals in Italy with two Jewish girls; I taught them how to make the sign of the cross and such.
      Those Mormon churches are something else; the one here, built about 20 years ago, looks like a Jetson’s version of St. Patricks, looming by the freeway in the suburbs, natch. Way too much money; way too little taste.
      You’ll like the book; I guarantee it.

  4. dirigo says:

    Read about the new football coach at Ohio State. He’s got some Kool-Aid in his kit.

  5. Yeah, OK. You have them to rights there.

    But what about that choir! Aren’t they just wonderful?

  6. dirigo says:

    This just in at the CHNN Eastern Desk: Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich reportedly cried yesterday during an appearance somewhere or t’other in Iowa.

    Observers on the scene confirmed to crackhead beltway scribblers that the tears started to flow as the candidate recalled childhood Christmases of yore with his mother, and about how they warbled carols into the night. Or some such.

    A burly man wearing a John Deere cap, standing in the back of the room where the candidate was appearing, was overheard saying: “Uh-oh. Y’know, I don’t mind hearing about teardrops glistening most of the time, but I’m kinda feeling cultish emanations here.”

    • cocktailhag says:

      Maybe he’d just gotten his Tiffany’s bill.

      • dirigo says:

        I hate to sound too cynical about Newt’s cryin’ jag (oh, what the Hell, let ‘er rip!), but his daughters, also known as the public relations firm of Cushman and Lubbers, seemed, in collateral reporting on the big moment, to reveal dear old Dad’s intentions as they alluded to Hillary’s weepy-weep in New Hampshire in 2008.

        Well, if the “national stage” is largely a place for professional performers, and since Newtie’s been on it for more than thirty years, it’s not a stretch to wonder if his big boo-hoo was a set up. After all, Newt might be hip to the ability of actors to cry on cue.

        Throw in the veteran spin-meister Frank Luntz, who could have coached the Speakahhh beforehand about just going with it and letting the tears flow when prompted about his dear old Mum, and you’ve got a great, blubbering, potentially viral moment to serve as a sympathetic wave all across Iowa, just ahead of the big decision out there.

        And the room where the magic happened was full of middle age women, each with a hankie in the handbag.

        Can’t beat it.

        • cocktailhag says:

          I used to call such cynicism breathtaking, now I can barely muster a snicker. The good news is that that corn-dotted turd is already circling the drain; all he can do is siphon a pity vote or two from the other oddities.
          Nice try, though, and it’s delightful that he’s spawned a new generation of similarly addlepated “historians.”

          • dirigo says:

            Newt’s a scholar of the first rank, as he keeps telling us. Granting him this lofty perch then, I would think he’s aware of the great scene in Richard III, in which Richard – while hearing appeals from Londoners that he assume the throne right away – pretends, ostentatiously and with a few well-timed tears, that he doesn’t want it.

            The murder and mayhem went on from there.

  7. cocktailhag says:

    It’d be nice to think he’s so literate; myself I think the only Richard that rings a bell with him is Nixon. I think there was a bit of implied teariness in the “Checkers” speech, too but after that came the Christmas Bombings and Cambodia…

    • dirigo says:


    • mikeinportc says:

      Well, he is auditioning for Assassin-In-Chief. ;)

      ( I’m a recoveing Cat-lick too. Switch a few minor details , and your characterization of the history could be ~ same.)
      Joseph Smith spent some of his early years around here, before his great “discovery”. Seems to have been a fair-middlin’ly successful huckster. The “discovery” up north was of the schtick that was most successful. ;)

  8. cocktailhag says:

    They apparently still have a big shindig every summer to celebrate, as it were, the great “discovery.” Next time I’m up there, we should crash it. Nobody’d get laid, of course, but it might make for some good video.