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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

April 4, 2014

NOTE: I read and reviewed this book in 2004, but recently finished Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, which explores some of the same themes. So I wanted to post this review as well.  


When I first saw this book in the bookstore, I thought it was about the Taliban because of the title, and from the image on the cover—rugged red mountain peaks. I was surprised to see that it was a book about fundamentalism, but fundamentalism in America, in the Mormon Church. Krakauer, known as an adventure travel writer, tells the story of the murders of a woman in Utah and her infant son by her two brothers-in-law, who claim to have been instructed by God to commit the murders. Krakauer examines the history behind this crime, both the history of the brothers and the history of the Mormon Church.

While the story of the murders themselves reads a little like a true-life crime drama, the history of the church is a fascinating look at a religious phenomenon. Not only is Mormonism one of the fastest growing religions,  but it was born less than two hundred years ago. While most ancient religions have the benefit of being “cleaned up” over thousands of years, the Mormon prophets, most notably Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, existed in a time of newspapers, affidavits, police records, etc., so the story of their lives, the good and the bad, are readily available. Krakauer makes this point well. And while the beliefs of Mormonism and the prophets they believe in may seem strange to non-Mormons, and while the history of the founding of the Mormon faith seems particularly bloody and violent, it is actually very similar to other major religions. But Mormonism differs slightly in that any member of its church can speak directly to God. Because of this, there have been a great many Mormons who have received “revelations” that differed from mainstream Mormon teachings and have thus broken off to form their own fundamentalist branch of Mormonism.

Historically, the most debatable issue in the Mormon Church, and thus the one responsible for the most schisms, has been the issue of polygamy, or “spiritual wivery” as the fundamentalists refer to it. It was from one of the more fanatical fundamentalist branches that the brothers in this book formed their belief system which eventually led them to murder. Overall, this was a fascinating look at the history of the Mormon Church and the nature of fundamentalist religions and religious fanaticism. Krakauer’s delivery sometimes crossed the lines of objectivity and I would have liked more exploration into the nature of religious belief in general, but as a story I thought this held together pretty well.

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