John Krakauer chronicled his personal experience of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy in the book Into Thin Air. He followed that with Into the Wild, the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family in Washington DC who, upon graduating from Emory University, hitch-hiked to Alaska and set out alone, on foot, to live in the wilderness north of Mount McKinley. Four months later, his decomposed, emaciated body was found by a hunting party.
Krakauer continues on the theme of apparently rational people undergoing tragic circumstances with Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith. As his primary case study, he examines brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, former members of mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who left the church to join a fundamentalist LDS sect. According to the brothers upon a revelation from God they were commanded to “remove” an impediment to the establishment of the “one true church”, their sister-in-law and her 16 month old daughter.
The genesis for this book was a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief. I’ve spent most of my life in the West, in the happy company of Latter-day Saints. I decided to narrow my subject to a more manageable scope by examining belief more or less exclusively through the lens of Mormonism. I grew up with Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, which had (and has) a robust LDS community. Saints were my childhood friends and playmates, my teachers, my athletic coaches. I envied what seemed to be the unfluctuating certainty of faith professed so enthusiastically by my closest Mormon pals but I was often baffled by it. I’ve sought to comprehend the formidable power of such belief ever since.
With the backdrop of the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Krakauer examines the evolution of the church from its beginning with Joseph Smith through it is violent and bloody migration to Utah. He discusses the pervading mysticism which led to controversial practices such a polygamy and blood atonement. This exploration probes fundamentalist Mormon movements, the resultant schisms of different interpretations of church doctrine.
Krakauer is pretty fair in his assessment of the church and remains impartial in his accounting of how the church came into being, despite condemnation of the book as “anti-Mormon”. The book actually has three distinct narratives: the story of the Lafferty brothers; the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and the prevalent fundamentalist movements. By presenting the subject in this manner the intertwined nature of belief put into practice is put together in an engrossing package.
Through interviews and exhaustive research, Krakauer does a good job of presenting the circumstances which have made the church such a lightning rod for criticism. The accounts of life within polygamous communities provide a fascinating insight into faith gone awry and the tragic consequences.
I read this book basically coming from an agnostic viewpoint with a similar background as Krakauer as quoted above. I came away from it with a much better understanding of the church, its history, and what can happen when faith is compromised. Definitely worth reading for the compelling insight into this most American of religions.