On a Mission from God

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It isn’t until the epilogue of Under the Banner of Heaven that we know Krakauer isn’t writing an indictment against the entire Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the short epilogue, he explains that he grew up in a Mormon community, was taught and baby-sat by Mormon men and women, and that he has nothing but the utmost respect for the vast majority of Mormons. It just takes him a little over three hundred pages to reach this conclusion, and if he hadn’t added that at the end of the book, I don’t think any astute reader would ever have accused Krakauer of ever having met a sane Mormon.

Krakauer’s assertion in the epilogue is that his original desire for this book was “a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief” that was tentatively titled History and Belief. However, he got sidetracked by the sensational. Under the Banner of Heaven is, indeed, a history of belief, although I don’t think he does much in the way of helping anyone grasp the nature of religious belief. The problem is that Krakauer opts to study the fanatical and the extremists. This isn’t surprising to those who have read Krakauer’s previous books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. The first is an account of a young, wealthy, well-educated young man who changes his name to Alexander Supertramp and bums his way across America and then finds his way into Alaska and freezes to . The second was a controversial record of a distastrous trip up Mt. Everest. Both are wonderful books (Into the Wild is one of my favorite books ever), by the way, but I do think it is important to understand Krakauer’s fascination with the extreme before reading Under the Banner of Heaven.

Krakauer’s book begins with the of a young mother and her infant daughter. They were killed by the woman’s brothers-in-law because she was not allowing her husband to take multiple wives, as per God’s command to this particular family. She was a devout Mormon, and she, as the rest of the Mormon Church, did not believe that God wanted men to have multiple wives. She was throwing a kink in the Lafferty brothers’ plan to wed several women, and this threatened to disrupt the relationships between the very close Lafferty brothers. Ron and Dan Lafferty received what they believed to be a vision from God commanding them to kill Brenda and her daughter.

There are several different ways to read books concerning Faiths quite unlike your own. I’m just going to name a couple, as this book elicited both of them from me frequently. The first is the humor method: how could they believe that? This is when I’m like Homer Simpson and like to laugh at people because they’re different from me. And then there is the much more difficult method that I don’t really have a name for. This is when I start to think about how silly my own beliefs much seem to someone who doesn’t know much about Christianity (“Okay,” they ask, “so Jesus’s mother was a virgin?).

Although Krakauer begins with the Lafferty brothers, he mostly uses their story as a way into the history of Mormonism. This is a very interesting history. Most people know about the golden tablets and the revelation to Joseph Smith. What Krakauer does is tell us more about the man Joseph Smith, as well as other early leaders of the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith, according to Krakauer, was a con-man. He’d been a con-man before the revelation and he was apparently a con-man to those working with him during the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. He used those around him to get what he wanted. He was very good at this. The same goes for several other early leaders.

Despite persecution and being driven from several different states, the Mormon Church thrived. There was something in the teachings of these men that inspired people. People were inspired to believe in these men, of course, but they were also inspired to believe in God. And this is where Krakauer made a decision to follow the history of those who believed in the men. Which, of course, in the beginning there wasn’t really too much of a difference. People followed the men who they thought were prophets of God. But as the Mormon Church matured, the vast majority of Mormons (and here I’m really just conjecturing as we don’t get to read about the vast majority of Mormons in this book) put their faith in God more than in Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The leader of the Mormon Church is still considered a prophet, and Mormons still trust him, but that’s about all I got from the this book about current, mainstream, Mormon beliefs.

The Fundamentalists. That’s what Krakauer focuses on. The Fundamentalists don’t go in for the modern ideas of the Church. They go in for Joseph Smith’s original vision. And some of them are willing to who threaten to get in the way of their beliefs. There are entire cities in Arizona and Canada made up entirely by these fundamentalists. But other than a very strong and weird belief in polygomy (it’s not just multiple wives to these fundamentalists–it’s step-daughters and sisters-in-law and such as that), we don’t really get much of a “grasp of the nature of religious belief.” At least I didn’t. I understand why Krakauer focused on the fundamentalists–they seem to be the ones who follow the original Mormon leaders’ commands.

Under the Banner of Heaven is an interesting history. I’d be interested in reading a less sensational account of the Mormon Church to see if my suspicions about Krakauer’s tendency toward the extreme are in any way warranted. And I do wish that Krakauer would have given more space his original desire to grasp the nature of religious belief. All we get in this book is that people believe some weird things. There is no grasping. At least not from the writer. Which is maybe the point. Through writing about some extreme beliefs, it can cause readers to attempt to grasp the nature of their own religious beliefs.

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8 Responses to “On a Mission from God”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Interesting. It’s almost always useful to learn to see one’s own beliefs as others see them. As for a history of more mainstream Mormonism, Jan Shipps’ book is a standard text.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Does Krakauer give any hint of whether he intends to revisit his original question in a future book?

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation and yes he does say he would like to write the book on History and Belief. Although it seems like he said that it would be a while before he got to it and that it might be a multi-volume thingy.

    And once again, my post was riddled with typos and words that I completely didn’t even include. I need an editor.

  4. Coach Says:

    One thing that I’ve found interesting in my own studies of late concerns the origins of Mormonism. Mormonism, Adventists, Disciples of Christ, C of C, and a couple of others all sprang from the same movement: The Second Great Awakening. All were bent on taking religion out of the hands of the wealthy elite and making it more accessible to the rank and file. Thus, they placed an added emphasis on scripture rather than on the commentaries or opinions of learned theologians. Joseph Smith took that one step further. He said, “We don’t even need scripture because God is talking to us right now.” People seemed to really latch onto it because of its immediacy and promised intimacy with God. That’s my limited understanding anyway. (Send me my dang power cord.)

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “Mormonism, Adventists, Disciples of Christ, C of C, and a couple of others all sprang from the same movement: The Second Great Awakening.”

    And they’re all Primitivist movements.

    “All were bent on taking religion out of the hands of the wealthy elite and making it more accessible to the rank and file.”

    Which had at least as much to do with the instrumental music debate within the Stone-Campbell Movement as did scripture. The piano and organ were seen by some (the future Cs of C) as symbols of wealth and upper-class tastes.

  6. juvenal_urbino Says:

    I take it back. The Adventists aren’t Primitivists. The Mormons and Stoned Camels definitely are, though.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I’ve read both “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Krakauer. The man can definitely spin a yarn. If he had really wanted to do a study of religious fanaticism and the nature of religious belief, he would have included examples from other faiths. He obviously doesn’t do that. There is no doubt in any reader’s mind that this book is an indictment on Mormonism. No matter how Krakauer spins it, that’s what he set out to do, and what he ultimately accomplished. I think that he should at least have the guts to stand up for it as such. The true legs of this book aren’t in the rehash of the Lafferty’s crimes, but in the history of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

  8. Michael Lasley Says:

    I agree, Joe, about Krakaeur spinning a yarn. I do think he’s a good writer, but I think he’s over the top. I was torn during this book. He seemed to want to do something with the Lafferty brothers and link them to Smith and Young in some way, but I don’t think he did a very good job of that. And the way he wrote about Smith and other early leaders seemed to beg readers to laugh at the men. That’s why I found the epilogue so confounding.

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