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Under the Banner of Heaven

Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the United States with 11 million Mormons throughout the world today. This is an astounding number when you think about the fact that the religion is only 170 years old and has more members than Judaism. Mormonism has been dubbed “The American Religion” and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has an incredible, whirlwind history, making this a religion well worth exploring.

Jon Krakauer’s recent book, Under the Banner of Heaven, has made waves in the Mormon community, but I find it difficult to describe this book as solely about Mormonism or the Mormon church. In his notes at the end of the book, the author states that he sought to write a book about “History and Belief”, the story of the conflict between modern Latter Day Saints and their complicated past. In many ways, I felt a little short-changed on that admittedly huge goal, but the final product is still an appealing book. In fact, Mr. Krakauer has produced a book with two distinct and interesting stories: 1) the early history of the religion focused on Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the founding fathers of the Mormon church; and 2) some more recent fanatical activities of small fundamentalist sects that draw out broader thoughts on religious fervor.

In Krakauer’s presentation, the history of the religion is fascinating – inspiring, bold, and often bloody. The most surprising aspect to the lay person is the relatively recent date of the religion’s founding and the very human beginnings of the Mormon church. Mormonism is only 170 years old, having been founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. By all accounts, Smith was an extremely charismatic person and a religious and political genius.

As the church’s founding father, Smith was the first President, Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Joseph Smith quickly surrounded himself with followers during a time of religious revivalism in the United States. As the church grew and espoused some relatively radical religious tenets, Smith and his followers were forced to move, settle and resettle, often in violent exoduses that eventually took them to Utah (though Smith himself was killed in Illinois during this period). Once finally settled in Utah, the church grew rapidly and became a very powerful force in the region and an influential element in U.S. politics. As it grew in size and visibility, the church was often pressured to “modernize” and eventually to denounce or downplay some of the early “radical” tenets of the church, like plural marriage.

Two early core elements of Mormonism were the right of plural marriage and the ability of Saints to be connected directly with God through personal revelations. As Krakauer relates, in more recent history these two tenets have been invoked by fanatical individuals who use Mormon fundamentalism as an excuse for some horrific actions, even criminal according to secular law. The Elizabeth Smart saga falls in this category as her abductor told authorities that God had revealed to him that she should become his plural wife.

The gruesome tale at the center of the book’s exploration of the intersection of history, faith and society, is the story of the Lafferty brothers. The brothers murdered their sister-in-law and new born niece ostensibly because Godrevealed to them that this was their calling and an important step toward the second coming of Jesus Christ. Krakauer uses this family of radical fundamentalist Mormons, and the series of events that led them to murder, to investigate small communities of “ex-communicated” Saints in the United States, Canada and Mexico in which plural marriage and strong-handed ruling abound.

Under the Banner of Heaven is well-written and thorough in its consideration of certain topics and events in Mormon history, but it has two main faults. First, Krakauer ignores the vast majority of modern Mormons by focusing on a few radical sects. Secondly, his writing at times jumps around from one topic to the next. You can sense the conflict in the author between his originally stated goal and the final focus on fanatical activities.

This is a book well worth reading as a set of complex, charged stories and an introduction to Mormon history. Though the Mormon community feels that Krakauer has printed a number of inaccuracies and does not provide a fair and balanced view of the church and its history, it opens the reader’s eyes to a powerful and rapidly growing religion which continually touches all of our lives. If nothing else, Under the Banner of Heaven should be among a stack of books on your shelves which explore the often multi-sided workings and histories of the world’s religions.

Religion is deeply ingrained in all aspects of our lives. Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion”; Roy Moore’s 10 Commandments Rock; the Horror of 9/11; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict… It seems that ever more personal, political, military, and terrorist activities throughout the world are driven by religious conflict and conviction. Misunderstanding is often at the center of these conflicts. Under the Banner of Heaven is certainly not a defining or clarifying book on all elements of Mormonism, but hopefully it will motivate us all to investigate more of the world’s religions further.

Knowledge is at the core of understanding, and understanding at the core of potential resolution.

October 14, 2003
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