The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS)

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August 3, 2003

'Under the Banner of Heaven': Thou Shalt Not Kill


A Story of Violent Faith.

By Jon Krakauer.
372 pp. New York: Doubleday. $26.

SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have talked a lot about the dark side of religion, but for the most part it isn't religion in America they've had in mind. Jon Krakauer wants to broaden their perspective. In ''Under the Banner of Heaven,'' he enters the obscure world of Mormon fundamentalism to tell a story of, as he puts it, ''faith-based violence.''

In July 1984, in a Utah town called American Fork, Dan Lafferty entered the home of his brother Allen, who was at work, and killed Allen's wife and 15-month-old daughter. Dan, now serving a life sentence, has no remorse about the murders and no trouble explaining them. His older brother, Ron, who assisted in the crime and is now on death row, had received a revelation from God mandating that Brenda and Erica Lafferty be ''removed'' so that, as God put it, ''my work might go forward.'' Brenda Lafferty, a spunky 24-year-old, had been bad-mouthing polygamy and in other ways impeding the fundamentalist mission that had seized Ron and Dan.

Parallels between the Lafferty brothers and Islamic terrorists aren't obvious, and Krakauer doesn't explore them very explicitly. The author of ''Into Thin Air,'' the best-selling account of death on Mount Everest, he is essentially a narrative writer. He mentions Osama bin Laden near the beginning and end of the book and leaves it for readers to draw their own conclusions, with some help from the book jacket's reference to ''Taliban-like theocracies in the American heartland.''

Still, by setting Mormon fundamentalism in its historical and scriptural context, and by powerfully illuminating Dan Lafferty's mind, Krakauer provides enough raw material for a seminar on post-9/11 questions. What drives people toward fundamentalism, and then toward violence? Where is the line between religious fanaticism and insanity? How heavy is the influence of religious history, in particular scripture, as opposed to the material conditions of modern life?

Mormon fundamentalists aren't Mormons in the common sense of the word. They don't belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned the doctrine of ''plural marriage'' in 1890. Many live in small towns (the ''Taliban-like theocracies'') where men evade anti-bigamy laws by having one lawful wife and additional ''spiritual'' wives. Others -- especially ''independents,'' who belong to no particular fundamentalist sect -- just blend into the landscape. The street preacher who allegedly kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart last year and forced her to ''marry'' him was an independent.

Dan and Ron Lafferty weren't born into this world. They were raised as severely pious but mainstream Mormons, and both were married before they flirted with fundamentalism.

Dan went first. It might seem that a man's attraction to a polygamous sub-culture needs little explaining, especially if he comes from a religion that discourages nonmarital sex with inordinate vigor. But Dan's conversion was about more than wanderlust. After his mom-and-pop sandwich business was shut down for lack of a license, leaving his family in a financial bind, he grew ardently averse to government regulation and found backing for this sentiment in the Book of Mormon. It was in this libertarian spirit that he came to reject the Mormon Church's jettisoning of polygamy; church leaders had caved in to an invasive federal government.

Ron, like Dan, turned toward fundamentalism while under economic pressure. The bank was about to foreclose on his home -- he would sometimes break into tears over his family's plight -when Dan convinced him that God wanted him to forsake material goals and become a fundamentalist missionary. Dan also drew his four other brothers into the fold, but there was one problem: Brenda, the wife of his brother Allen. As the Lafferty boys started espousing polygamy and other strange things, Brenda urged the other wives to resist. And Ron's wife took Brenda's advice in spades. She divorced Ron and took the children to Florida. So when Ron's divine revelation about Brenda's ''removal'' arrived, he was in a receptive frame of mind.

Though organized around the Lafferty brothers' crime, ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' recounts the always interesting history of Mormonism, starting with the day in 1823 when the New York visionary and suspected charlatan Joseph Smith met an angel named Moroni. Krakauer wants to show how the Lafferty murder is rooted in the Mormon past. He emphasizes, for example, the doctrine of ''blood atonement,'' stressed by Smith but later dropped by the church.

It's true that Dan Lafferty, while delving into church history, encountered this idea. But it's also true that by then he already harbored volatile grievances and that he had come from a violent background; his father killed the family dog with a baseball bat as family members looked on. Most religions, and certainly the monotheistic ones, have odes to violence in their scriptural past. (See, for example, Deuteronomy.) The question is what makes some people more inclined than others to latch onto these passages.

However valid Krakauer's linkage of past and present, it steepens an already formidable storytelling challenge. The contemporary parts of the book -skipping from the Lafferty case to sketches of two fundamentalist towns to a late-breaking chapter on Elizabeth Smart -- can themselves disorient the reader with disparate detail. (From a strictly literary standpoint, polygamy's main downside is its creation of lots of characters with the same last name.) With long historical sections mixed in, the momentum dissipates further. Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture, but there is little narrative synergy among them.

The book ends near the desert town of Colorado City, Ariz., a bastion of fundamentalism, with DeLoy Bateman, a resident, reflecting on his conversion to atheism. He grants that believers are happy but says happiness isn't as important as being free to think for yourself. He's referring partly to the totalitarian undercurrent of Mormon fundamentalism. (The town's leading prophet tells his flock to avoid television, magazines and newspapers -- and sometimes tells teenage girls whom they should marry.) Still, this, the book's closing note, will be taken by some as a verdict on religion writ large -- especially since, at the moment Bateman notes religion's conduciveness to happiness, he happens to look out over ''a quivering sheen of mirage.''

Certainly the picture of religion presented in the book is unflattering. Linking the Laffertys to Mormon history means stressing its violent and authoritarian aspects. And of course neither of these is an invention of Krakauer's. (Polygamous societies in general tend toward authoritarianism, as the anthropologist Laura Betzig has shown. She attributes this to the need of powerful men to control not just women but the understandably unsettled lower-status males who, through the grim mathematics of polygamy, go mateless.) Still, it would have been nice to see some of religion's upside. Something must explain the vibrancy of mainstream Mormonism, and I doubt it's just the dark energy of residual authoritarianism. Religion, like patriotism, can nurture virtue within the group even while directing hostility beyond it.

Courtroom arguments over Ron Lafferty's sanity impinge on the question of religion from another angle, by questioning the line between religious fervor and pathological delusion. Though believers may find this question offensive, in a way it acquits religion of some charges against it. If there isn't much difference between the talking dog that gave David Berkowitz his marching orders and the ''God'' that visited Ron Lafferty, then for all we know Lafferty, had he not been religious, would have gotten his guidance from another voice.

THE human mind is great at justifying its goals, and it does so by whatever medium is handy, including -- if neither god nor dog seems plausible -- simple moralizing. Dan Lafferty, asked to distinguish himself from Osama bin Laden, says, ''I believe I'm a good person.'' An unfortunately common sentiment. Krakauer writes that ''as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane . . . there may be no more potent force than religion.'' But sheer instinctive self-righteousness may ultimately be a bigger part of the problem. It is a common denominator of crimes committed in the name of religion, nationalism, racism -- even, sometimes, nihilism.

And it isn't the only element of the Lafferty story with this kind of versatility. Dan and Ron Lafferty saw their quest for security and stature frustrated and then found someone to blame -- a description that, in one sense or another, applies to Mohamed Atta, Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine killers. ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' is an arresting portrait of depravity that may have broader relevance than the author intended.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of ''The Moral Animal'' and ''Nonzero.''




"Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith"

By Jon Krakauer

400 pages


“American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857"

By Sally Denton

Alfred A. Knopf
352 pages


"Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy"

By Dorothy Allred Solomon

W.W. Norton
352 pages

Latter-day sinners?
Three new books -- including Jon Krakauer's latest -- take a look at some dark moments in the history of Mormonism and the violent effects of sexually rooted religious hysteria.

By Laura Miller

July 26, 2003  |  It hasn't been a good year for Mormon public relations. In March, Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old Salt Lake City girl who had been abducted nine months earlier, turned up in the custody of a man calling himself Immanuel David Isaiah, an itinerant Mormon fundamentalist who had kidnapped her to make her his second "wife." Although the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is adamant that isolated fanatics like Brian David Mitchell (Isaiah's real name) and the more established but often equally bizarre fundamentalist communities scattered throughout the Southwest, Canada and Mexico are not encouraged by Mormon officialdom, to many the distinction seems only a matter of degree. When police first discovered the girl with Mitchell and his legal wife, she denied being Elizabeth Smart for nearly an hour, and more than one commentator observed that her Mormon upbringing made her a ripe candidate for the brainwashing Mitchell subjected her to. Despite the church's squeaky-clean image, polygamy and violence are deeply entwined in the roots of the Mormon religion, as no less than three books published this summer attest.




The most prominent of the three, "Under the Banner of Heaven," is the work of Jon Krakauer, whose account of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, "Into Thin Air," became a huge bestseller five years ago. "Banner" seems unlikely to repeat that success -- it lacks the breathless, minute-by-minute chronology of hubris, error and icy death that made his earlier book a stay-up-all-night read -- but the author's reputation should win it a large enough readership to dismay the official LDS, whose leadership has already issued a rebuttal. "Banner" is a mixture of true-crime reporting and history, centered on the grisly knife murder of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica in American Fork, Utah, in 1984. The culprits were her two brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty.

The Lafferty brothers had been excommunicated from the Church of the LDS for advocating a return to the ideal of "plural" or "celestial" marriage (polygamy) -- officially banned by the church in 1890 -- and then kicked out of a fundamentalist sect for presenting a divine revelation ordering that their sister-in-law and her baby (along with two other adults) be "removed." The sect, run by a 74-year-old man calling himself the Prophet Onias, had in turn splintered off from another group of zealots, the United Effort Plan or UEP, when Onias received a revelation that the men running the UEP had "gone astray." The leaders of the UEP also claimed to be operating their authoritarian polygamous community according to God's hand-delivered instructions, as did the original founder of the LDS, the prophet Joseph Smith, who received regular directives from above, including the proclamation known as Section 132, which declared that "If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another ... then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him." (In fact, the right to multiple wives didn't accrue to "any man," but only to leaders of the church and a favored few on whom they bestowed that particular blessing.)

As Krakauer points out, the problem with a religion founded on the idea that its leaders get their marching orders straight from the Almighty is that members who quarrel with how things are being run have a tendency to start receiving their own contradictory commandments. That's why there are around 200 Mormon splinter groups throughout North America -- impressive in a religion that's not even 200 years old. Polygamy is the main point of contention between fundamentalist Mormons who wish to return to "the principle" and the U.S. government; it also makes for the most deliciously lurid headlines, especially when a camera hog like the "independent" (i.e., unaffiliated with any sect) Nevada polygamist Tom Green comes along. Green had a penchant for going on national television to tout his multiple marriages, some to underage girls, and as a result provoked the authorities to convict him of child rape, bigamy and criminal non-support of his family. (The extensive Green household was largely bankrolled by state and federal welfare agencies.)

But as Krakauer's book, Dorothy Allred Solomon's memoir of growing up rebellious in a polygamist clan, "Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk," and journalist Sally Denton's "American Massacre" -- a historical account of the darkest moment in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857 -- indicate, polygamy may not be the most troubling aspect of the religion. There's also the doctrine of "blood atonement," which holds that when a person is in a state of grievous sin, any Mormon in good standing who kills that sinner according to the proper protocol is actually doing the victim a service, cleansing the sin with blood. Of course, blood atonement has fallen into even greater disfavor with official Mormondom than polygamy has, but fundamentalists looking to terminate their enemies with extreme prejudice can find sufficient Old-Testament-style justification in the church's scriptural bedrock. Hence, the Lafferty brothers believed that they were cutting the throats of their sister-in-law and niece at God's command, and Solomon's father was murdered by an adherent of a rival sect leader.

The Lafferty brothers targeted their brother's wife because she'd been an obstacle to their efforts to "live the principle." Ron, the eldest brother and previously a loving husband and father and exemplary member of the LDS, became caught up in ideas detailed in a 19th century polygamist tract that he and Dan believed had been penned by Joseph Smith himself. Ron began to impose all sorts of onerous strictures on his wife, demanding subservience and a return to such frontier activities as churning all the family's butter by hand; he also talked about marrying off the couple's daughters as plural wives. Dan's wife, writes Krakauer, "was no longer allowed to drive, handle money, or talk to anyone outside the family when Dan wasn't present, and she had to wear a dress at all times." Their sister-in-law, Brenda, successfully encouraged Ron's wife to divorce him, thereby provoking Ron's homicidal wrath. (Why the baby needed to die as well has never been particularly clear.)

Krakauer doesn't hesitate to call renegade Mormons like the Laffertys "American Taliban." It's true that, like fundamentalists of all stripes, they're lashing out at a modern society that has left them feeling increasingly powerless, overwhelmed and sidelined. In the words of author Karen Armstrong, they want to "resacralize an increasingly skeptical world." But those are lofty terms for what, on the ground, often looks like a garden-variety crisis of sexual confidence. Ron Lafferty's slip into fanaticism followed some serious financial setbacks that ate away at his sense of his own manhood by impairing his ability to provide for his family. And when the demands of Islamists in the Middle East and Central Asia are boiled down to essentials, they largely amount to anxieties about women, wanting to keep them locked up at home and their bodies shrouded, entirely dependent on and subject to their husbands and fathers, their chastity strictly and often brutally enforced.

This brand of sexually rooted religious hysteria can be deadly, but it's not the only sort of violence associated with Mormonism. In her blistering account of the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre, Denton accuses the leadership of the church, and in particular its head, Brigham Young, of culpability in the worst white-on-white atrocity committed in America until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In 1857, a large and wealthy wagon train of God-fearing, law-abiding Arkansas farmers headed for California was ambushed in the foothills of southern Utah. As many as 140 people were slaughtered -- all but the youngest children, who were thought to be unable to relate the truth about the killings.

From the beginning, the official Mormon line on the massacre was that it had been perpetrated by Paiute Indians, but whispered reports that the Mormons themselves were responsible could not be squelched. Some of the more appalling details include the treacherous use of a white flag in order to persuade the travelers to surrender their arms so that they might be more easily butchered, the hacking to death of women and children, the looting of corpses and the abandonment of the bodies to rot in the open air. The surviving children were brought to live in homes run by their families' killers, where plural wives wore the clothes of their dead mothers and sisters. Investigators who visited the site several months later were horrified by the long hair of the murdered women strewn all over the meadow's bushes.

Denton's isn't the first or even the definitive account of the massacre, but it's probably the most inclined to damn the Mormon elite for it. She looks askance at any reports of Indian involvement, beyond a few mercenaries hired to round out the Mormon ranks. She scoffs at Brigham Young's claim that, when notified that the wagon train had been spotted, he sent a letter to the local militia commander, ordering that the emigrants be allowed to pass "unmolested." The letter, which disappeared, supposedly arrived too late to save the emigrants, but as Denton points out, even an order not to attack implies an already standing order to do so. Federal investigators soon determined Mormon responsibility for the murders, and one of Young's most trusted lieutenants was executed for leading the massacre, although just how high up the culpability went remains unsettled.

As horrific as the Mountain Meadows massacre was, it's hard to blame it all on religious zealotry. The local Mormons and militia who did the killing were partly motivated by greed, as, probably, was Young, if he did indeed order it. The church, which was the sum and total of civic authority in the Utah territory, was in financial straits, and the wagon train was reportedly laden with gold. Young also knew that the federal government had become increasingly perturbed by his control over the Utah territory; Americans back East were shocked and titillated by the practice of polygamy, but there was also the question of the sovereignty over the West. Young knew that President James Buchanan had ordered federal troops into the territory, seeking to assert secular control over what Young considered his own personal Kingdom of Deseret.

The Mormons had suffered persecution in a series of communities before their exodus to the Great Salt Lake Basin, so a certain portion of their paranoia was warranted. But then again, they had a tendency to provoke the kind of animosity that led to persecution. While it's no excuse for the bloody and unjust acts committed against members of the LDS by non-Mormons (labeled "Gentiles" by the faithful), Mormons made a habit of moving into and taking over small towns. There, according to Krakauer, they lorded their sense of spiritual entitlement over the Gentile populace and "engaged in commerce exclusively with other Saints whenever possible, undermining local businesses. They voted in a uniform bloc, in strict accordance with Joseph [Smith's] directives, and as their numbers increased they threatened to dominate regional politics." Until he was lynched by an angry mob of Gentiles, Smith expected that he would soon become the theocratic monarch of the U.S. and "believed that democracy and constitutional restraint were rendered moot in his own case." He ordered the destruction of an opposition newspaper's printing press and the attempted assassination of a former governor who had been one of the faith's enemies.

Even where the Mormons were initially welcomed, they eventually antagonized those who were there first, and so emigration to a place as remote and unpopulated as the Salt Lake region became inevitable. When even that isolation was imperiled, they behaved as many a tight-knit, hierarchical community has; the Salem witch trial hysteria, recently linked by historian Mary Beth Norton to the Massachusetts settlers' besieging by nearby Indian tribes, comes to mind. The wagon train waylaid in Mountain Meadows posed no threat of any kind to Mormon autonomy, but the church's habit of regarding Gentiles as somewhat less than fully human made it that much easier for its soldiers to mow them down and grab their belongings.

It will be tempting for some to blame the Mountain Meadows massacre and the misdeeds of the Laffertys and other fundamentalists on Mormonism, or on religion as a whole. But there are plenty of secular counterparts to these crimes, committed in Polish and Ukrainian villages during World War II, under the Cultural Revolution in China or in various African conflicts. They are incited in the name of everything from tribal allegiance to class war. Behind their exalted rhetoric and unusual doctrines, the early leaders of the Mormon Church were motivated by the same things that drive authoritarian leaders everywhere: the amassing of personal wealth, the ability to boss all the other men around, and the opportunity to have sex with as many 14-year-old girls as possible. Brigham Young, meet Mao Tse Tung -- you two have lots in common.

The kinds of societies such men set up, whatever ideology and hero-worship they're wrapped in, are breeding grounds for atrocity. The only appropriate word to describe them is one that's been nearly drained of meaning by the overblown rhetoric of political correctitude: patriarchy. Institutions like fundamentalist Mormon clans or 18th century Salem serve as a salutary reminder of what that word really means. A society that demands unquestioning obedience to its leader or leaders, as the Mormon Church did and still often does, is really just a macrocosm of the kind of family where the man of the house regards the women and children in it as his property to use as he sees fit; exactly the situation that tract that inspired the Lafferty brothers recommends. It's a short step from that to the belief that Big Daddy gets to wipe out the lives of any underling or outsider who interferes with the free exercise of his power. Whatever stirring words he comes up with as an excuse is beside the point. The guys to fear aren't just the ones who believe in a god, but the ones who think they're entitled to act like one.

About the writer
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.




Herald Tribune



Friday, July 25, 2003

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

Reviewed by Janet Maslin

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A Story of Violent Faith By Jon Krakauer. Illustrated. 372 pages. $26.Doubleday.

PREDATORS, PREY AND OTHER KINFOLK: Growing Up in Polygamy By Dorothy Allred Solomon. 399 pages. $24.95. W.W. Norton.

This is sure to be the most often repeated brutal detail from Jon Krakauer’s new book: that a Mormon fundamentalist named Dan Lafferty spoke briefly to his 15-month-old niece on July 24, 1984, just before he killed her with a 10-inch boning knife. Lafferty explains to the author from his permanent home in a Utah state prison, ‘‘I told her: ‘I’m not sure what this is all about, but apparently it’s God’s will that you leave this world. Perhaps we can talk about it later.’’’

‘‘Under the Banner of Heaven’’ wants to talk about it now. It wants to link the double murder of Erica and her mother, Brenda, committed by two of her brothers-in-law, to a larger and no less bloody tableau of Mormon extremism throughout American history. In collecting evidence, Krakauer ventures out to a lunatic fringe of polygamous self-appointed prophets, where the Mormons and the Martians are almost interchangeable. He is even able to connect them to the fanatics found on Mount Everest in his enormously successful ‘‘Into Thin Air,’’ a bravura dis play of his nonfiction storytelling skills. While Krakauer is clearly interested in obsessive, risk-taking mavericks (and described them so well in the act of mountain-climbing), this book does not evolve naturally from that one.

Long underwear is a common factor, even if it is worn less understandably by devout polygamists in the desert than by freezing mountaineers. But ‘‘Under the Banner of Heaven’’ understands this as freakishness rather than fervor. Echoing Mark Twain’s opinion that ‘‘The Book of Mormon’’ is ‘‘chloroform in print,’’ this book provides more voyeuristic astonishment than curiosity or understanding.

For readers who know nothing of even the mainstream Mormon past, Krakauer presents details that sound stranger than fiction: how the angel Moroni told Joseph Smith Jr. of 1,400-year-old solid gold plates bearing scripture, buried in upstate New York; how the Mormons fled from a place called Nauvoo (in Illinois); how a ‘‘peep stone’’ can provide magical visions; how even the deceased can be inducted into the fold.

This history is complex enough for the book to warrant many long footnotes, enough to indicate organizational difficulties. It becomes even more tangled in investigating fundamentalist sects and splinter groups devoted to plural marriage as a holy principle and to the abundance of dangerous self-proclaimed prophets like Dan and Ron Lafferty. Ron, who once tried to kill Dan because God told him to, also believes that God has said to him: ‘‘And surely I will fulfill all my promises unto my servant Ron.’’

Shifting bumpily between chapters devoted to historical events and present-day loose cannons, Krakauer has also shoehorned in a chapter about the abduction of Elizabeth Smart at age 14 and a covetous polygamist, Brian David Mitchell, the man charged in the case. This section is more obligatory than revealing, but it underscores a pattern of sexual abuse and incest that runs through this material. Among many examples is that of Kenyon Blackmore. One of his daughters says she was raped by him and says he means to ‘‘marry’’ her sisters when each one turns 12.

Not surprisingly, Krakauer has ruffled feathers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavows such behavior. He has also prompted what is sure to be renewed in terest in Mormon life. Sally Denton’s ‘‘American Massacre’’ overlaps with ‘‘Under the Banner of Heaven’’ in investigating the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, which implicated Mormons in the killing of pioneers from Arkansas.

Dorothy Allred Solomon, who comes from a prominent line of polygamists, puts a more human face on this subject by describing her own experience as the 28th of her father’s 48 children. She was raised by seven mothers and remembers a time ‘‘when Daddy went away to college,’’ actually when he served five years in prison for illegal cohabitation.

If Solomon’s story sometimes sounds like the stuff of daytime television talk shows, it is. She regrets having been bumped from a date on ‘‘Donahue’’ by Winnie Mandela and has appeared with Sally Jessy Raphael. But it is a remarkable tale. She grew up with the knowledge that the mere fact of her birth could mean more prison time for her father, Rulon Allred (a physician who is also mentioned by Krakauer). She hid with her family to avoid government raids and tells how one faction wound up in a remote spot, living on nothing but carrots.

And of course she witnessed the everyday reality of a polygamous family. ‘‘You promised us you would marry only virgins,’’ she says the mothers insisted, when Allred wondered whether it was his spiritual duty to take more wives. (He did. He wound up with 16.) Allred’s assassination in 1977 by a rival fundamentalist group fits into the bloody tradition that all these books describe.

Solomon is best when not being lyrical. (‘‘The truth is cold, a peach frozen in January.’’)

For the most part Solomon is outspoken and frank, free of the dissembling to avoid prosecution that she calls ‘‘practicing Mormon logic.’’ To Krakauer, this is ‘‘lying for the Lord.’’



The Many Wives They Lead

By Jonathan Yardley,
Thursday, July 10, 2003; Page C02

Growing Up in Polygamy
By Dorothy Allred Solomon
Norton. 399 pp. $24.95

Late in the afternoon of May 10, 1977, two women walked into the Salt Lake City office of Rulon Clark Allred, a practitioner of "naturopathy, osteopathy, chiropractic and medicine." They were oddly dressed, in "a blonde wig and a brunette wig and a couple of parkas," but no one seems to have been startled by them. They asked to see the doctor, who was busy, but the one in the blonde wig was assured that "he would be with her in a few minutes." Soon the doctor walked down the hall near the waiting room. The woman in the blonde wig called out, "Doctor?" and followed him:

"He turned and she emptied [a] 25 magnum handgun into his neck and chest. She couldn't seem to hit his face, even when he was on the floor, the blood running out, his hands vibrating -- the hands that had delivered so many babies, the last part of him to give up life. The shooter followed the other woman out and grabbed her cohort's loaded pistol. Back inside, she fired directly at the doctor's face, but missed again. The bullets ricocheted off the floor into the walls and ceiling. One of the male patients, perhaps thinking he could save the doctor's life or bring the woman to justice, wrestled for the gun. She turned it on him. 'Don't,' he begged. 'I have a family.' He ran for the restroom and she fired after him. Then she left."

The murder of Rulon Allred was the climax of a strange feud between his family and the LeBarons, "Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye people." It was also a central event, perhaps the central event in the life of his daughter Dorothy, the author of this book. But if the murder is the climax toward which the book (very slowly) moves, its central subject is "the Principle," the doctrine of plural marriage by which both families lived. Dorothy Allred Solomon is "the only daughter of my father's fourth plural wife, twenty-eighth of forty-eight children," a distinction that probably marks her even more deeply than the shooting of her father.

"Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk" is a peculiar book. Solomon's story certainly provokes sympathy, the subject of Mormon polygamy is inherently interesting, and the relationship between her and the other members of her immense family is the stuff of fiction, but she does disappointingly little to draw the reader in. Part of the problem is her penchant for improbable metaphor and simile -- "grapevines bearing fruit as bitter as Satan's lips," a wedding aboard ship in the Atlantic was "a new life struck in salt spray," "his kiss was soft and fleeting as moth wings" -- but the larger difficulty is that the narrative simply rambles on and on and on. Solomon got access to a vast storehouse of family papers, and she was unable to resist the temptation to use just about everything she found; the result is a book that's far too long, too discursive and too self-absorbed.

This is a pity, because there's a lot of interesting stuff here. Despite the artlessness of her craft, Solomon does provide more than a glimpse inside a world that has long been mysterious to most of us. In the case of polygamy, or "plural marriage," it's a world most of us probably assume ended in the fall of 1890 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the official name of the Mormon Church -- renounced "the practice of plural marriage on the grounds that it was in violation of laws enacted by the United States Congress." With polygamy banned under federal law and repudiated by the Mormon Church, the polygamists were generally assumed to have abandoned the practice, but in fact some simply went underground with it.

These were the "Mormon fundamentalists" who "lived the early tenets of the Church . . . including the Principle of Plural Marriage, the United Order, where everyone gives to the common store where it is distributed according to need, and the Law of Consecration, where all that we are, do, and have is given freely to God for the building up of His Kingdom." Allred uses "we" because she is referring to her own family. Rulon Allred was an ardent disciple of the Principle who told his children: "Even in the days when the Church openly practiced plural marriage, it was reserved for those who were worthy to live it. . . . Abraham lived the Principle, as did Isaac and Jacob. The Lord promised that their seed would outnumber the stars."

For all his piety, in other words, Allred was an elitist who believed that he and a few others had been chosen by God to cast their seed as widely as possible, hence the innumerable wives (I lost count) and the four dozen children. He presided over a rigid patriarchy in which his word was the only law -- except of course God's, and doubtless it was easy to confuse the two -- and in which happiness seems to have been a fairly elusive commodity for those living under his reign. Solomon portrays the wives as heavily burdened with domestic responsibilities, only occasionally alleviated by a glance or a smile from the master, as seeking to achieve harmony in most unlikely circumstances but lapsing occasionally into bickering and territoriality; they also competed in sneaky, small-minded ways, such as "each one trying to out-martyr the other."

Beyond that, the family was constantly on the run from the law. This meant splitting up and heading in different directions, Mexico included. Salt Lake City may have been home, but they were only rarely there, and even more rarely were they all in the same place at once. They grew ever more fearful as the press "spread dark rumors and half-truths about polygamy" and as "the ferocious LeBaron family" showed up to chant the gospel of their own "Church of the First Born," including "a frightening interpretation of the Blood Atonement doctrine which provided for people to kill in the name of God."

That Solomon emerged from this with her sanity intact is something of a miracle. She is obviously a strong-minded woman, now in her fifties, who wrote for herself "a new script -- a script of monogamy instead of polygamy, a script of assertive being instead of martyred or victimized being, a script dedicated to living rather than dying a little bit at a time." That she did so is entirely to her credit; it's just too bad that she didn't make much of a book out of it.


Trail of Blood
'American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857' by Sally Denton

Reviewed by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Sunday, August 3, 2003; Page BW08

The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857
By Sally Denton
Knopf. 306 pp. $26.95

The date Sept.11 carried a chilling regional resonance nearly a century and a half before 2001. On Sept. 11, 1857, the Baker/Fancher party, traveling by wagon with a large cattle herd and headed from Arkansas to California, was attacked in southern Utah. After a siege of four days, under the promise of a truce and safe conduct, the members of the besieged party accepted an escort from a group of Mormons and, possibly, Indians. At a spoken command, the escorts turned on the escorted, killing adults and children over 8 years of age.

Were the killers following orders from Brigham Young, president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Will the historical record ever allow us to answer that question?

The covering-up began right after the killing, with vows of secrecy, denials of responsibility and, particularly, declarations that Indians, not white people, had committed the massacre at Mountain Meadows. In the 1870s, a shift in strategy led to the murder trial and execution of John D. Lee, the Mormon who had offered the Baker/Fancher Party the truce and thus delivered them to their deaths. The historical record had become a first-rate muddle, a case study that would serve as a useful exercise for seminars in history departments, letting students encounter the impossibility of reaching a state of certainty when the surviving documents continue to fight with each other.

And yet in much of American Massacre Sally Denton conveys a sense of certainty, noting the contradictions in the record and then dismissing them by choosing the construction or interpretation that holds the leadership of the Church directly responsible for the murders at Mountain Meadows. Statements by John D. Lee, for instance, are treated as credible when they implicate the Church leaders and doubtful when they exonerate them or himself. Early in Denton's narrative of the violence at Mountain Meadows, she makes the requisite admission: "Like much of the rest of the story, the truth would be mired in a lack of solid evidence" and then goes on to tell the story of the massacre in clear, definitive terms, as if she had found a way to unearth "the truth" from its mire. In one statement, she makes it clear why she finds documentary proof of Young's explicit commands unnecessary: "Within the context of the era and the history of Brigham Young's complete authoritarian control over his domain and his followers, it is inconceivable that a crime of this magnitude could have occurred without direct orders from him." She has reached her verdict, in which reasonable doubt will not figure.

Further complicating the problems of interpreting the evidence is the matter of kinship. "Though we were not Mormons," Denton writes, "my father was descended from a long line of Mormon pioneers." Same for me, as it turns out, though our "line" is not as long as Denton's, originating instead with late 19th-century Scandinavian converts. Like Denton, when it comes to Mormon history, I cannot take neutrality and dispassion for granted.

Among the world's religions, Mormonism bears an unusual historical burden by virtue of its comparatively recent origin. The founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took place in a setting of active record-keeping; defenders and critics of Mormonism have left us their testimony in a way that proves to be both burden and opportunity.

Thus, the question of official responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre is a matter with enormous implications for the contemporary Church. Some Mormons engaged in a stunning act of bad faith when they promised the party a safe escort. But what does that fact mean for Mormons today? An assertion of Brigham Young's direct responsibility for the massacre threatens the sanctity of the church's origins while directly challenging the truthfulness of official declarations of institutional innocence. Still, it is a rare religion that owns an unbroken history of high-minded and principled behavior; few believers are spared the burden of making their peace with the morally complicated history of their faith. In the wake of the more recent Sept. 11 attack, many Americans have had the occasion to contemplate the ties between religious belief and violence. And yet Sally Denton's preoccupation with Mormon wrongdoing prohibits her from thinking about Mountain Meadows in this larger context.

One can see the nearsightedness of Denton's approach most strikingly in her assertion of scale. "Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995," she claims, "Mountain Meadows had been the largest civilian atrocity to occur on American soil." As many as 140 people died at Mountain Meadows. The number of Indian people killed at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864, to use one example, was equal to that, and maybe a little greater. (Estimates of the numbers of people killed in episodes like these are inevitably imprecise.) Did Denton really mean to say that the victims have to be white before an event counts as a "civilian atrocity"? Or was the goal of making the strongest possible case for Mormon wrongdoing the force propelling her overstatement?

In explaining the motives of the killers at Mountain Meadows, Denton is surely right in saying that the Mormons of the mid-19th century had a strong sense of persecution and an inclination to dream of vengeance. And yet the Mormons did have enemies; they had been driven from settlement to settlement in their early years in the Midwest; a mob did kill their founder and prophet; the U.S. government did send the Army to subdue Utah. Denton's portrayal seems to assume that Mormons were unusual in their failure to devise a wise, reasonable and peaceful strategy of response to attacks and persecution. Most would agree that the Mormons of the mid-19th century should not serve as our role models in these matters. But how should people in the present remember an event steeped in cruelty and misery? As Americans struggle to define the proper national response to terrorism, the question is far from a matter of abstract historical curiosity.

In 1871, a discontented Mormon intellectual described the relationship between Mormons and Gentiles (non-Mormons) before the emigration to Utah, in a passage full of resonance for our times: "It was worse than civil war, worse than a war of races; it was religious hate! It was fed by fanaticism on both sides." •

Patricia Nelson Limerick chairs the board at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado; her books include "Something in the Soil."


June 20, 2003

Mormons and a massacre: Was Young at all responsible?

American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857; Sally Denton; Alfred A. Knopf: 310 pp., $26.95

By Anthony Day, Special to The Times

American Massacre

The Tragedy at Mountain

Meadows, September 1857

Sally Denton

Alfred A. Knopf: 310 pp., $26.95

In the 1820s a powerful wind of political and religious unrest swept across the American frontier into which settlers were pouring. In politics, the upheaval brought Andrew Jackson of Tennessee into the presidency in 1828. In religion, it spawned a host of anti-establishment individualistic sects marked variously by mysticism, communistic property ownership, spiritualism and powerful and domineering leaders.

The most successful and enduring of these sects was that of the Mormons, now known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was founded by Joseph Smith, who received his first of several communications from the angel Moroni on Sept. 21, 1820, in the village of Palmyra in western New York, an area known as the "burned-over district" because of the various religious enthusiasms that had blown through there. Moroni directed Smith to the famous golden tablets, which inspired Smith's Book of Mormon, his bible for his new religion, a mixture of Christianity, Judaism and the mystical individualism that was a keynote of the period.

His charisma quickly brought followers. They began the long trek west that would end in 1847 in their very own Zion, the Utah Territory. "Industriousness, abundance and envy would fuel the rebuke they faced wherever they settled," writes Sally Denton, herself of Mormon ancestry, in "American Massacre."

Even as they celebrated the accumulation of communal wealth, Smith structured his grimly patriarchal and growing separatist band with a priesthood and doctrines sure to inflame the animosity of his neighbors. Polygamy was one; another the notion of "blood atonement," by which wrongs against the saints, including apostasy, were to be redressed by the spilling of blood, preferably by cutting the throats of the miscreants. To enforce the code of the militant, beleaguered new religion it established, Denton writes, "a secret group of loyalists" — the Danites, named for the prophet Daniel. They were, if you will — drawing on the characterization of scholars whom Denton quotes — Mormon hit squads.

The Mormons' sense of persecution was quite expectedly inflamed after the murder of Smith by a mob in Nauvoo, Ill., on July 27, 1844. He left 59 wives and numerous children. He also left his successor prophet, Brigham Young, who led the band, now increased by emigrants from England and elsewhere in Europe, to the promised land.

Young, no less charismatic than Smith and a brilliant organizer, soon announced he had died and, before coming back to life, had talked with Smith. With this, he was "officially ensconced and elevated into a deity," Denton writes. "He would govern with increasing totalitarianism for the next 30 years, an authoritarian dictatorship that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre." This is the heart of Denton's careful, accusatory book. Her indictment has been made before; she embellishes it with some new research from newspapers of the day and a clear, sharp style.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was the slaughter in 1857 of a band of settlers headed in their wagon train for California in a once lovely valley not far from Cedar City, Utah. At that time the Mormons were under pressure from the federal government, whose authority they were defying. The headquarters in Salt Lake City spread the word that a U.S. attack was imminent; Mormons were pulled back to Utah from as far away as San Bernardino. Young was fervently crying the alarm, raising the specter of their annihilation.

The wagon train, composed of prosperous emigrants from Arkansas, was denied the sustenance in Utah it had reasonably expected. In Mountain Meadows they were set upon and slaughtered with guns and knives, about 140 men, women and older children. Their corpses were stripped and left naked in the field; their clothes, belongings, cattle and the gold they were said to have carried confiscated by Mormons. Only a few young children were left alive.

The Mormons first blamed Paiute Indians. As Denton and others have demonstrated, that is false. Mormons did the deed themselves. The question is, was Young responsible? From that day to this the church has said no. The commander of the attackers, John Doyle Lee, was a fervent Mormon and believer in Young. Denton chillingly presents him as Young's fall guy. Lee was tried and convicted by the Mormon authorities and executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877.

Lee signed four statements recanting his confession; Denton believes they are essentially true. His contemporary descendants, including former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, have tried to get the church to get to the truth of the matter. To this day the church resists. In "American Massacre," Denton's case for Young's responsibility is circumstantial, but it is powerfully, persuasively circumstantial.



In God's name: Is it madness?

Under the Banner of Heaven, A Story of Violent Faith. Jon Krakauer, Doubleday: 374 pp., $26

By Emily Bazelon

July 13 2003

Tromping around Salt Lake City with a long beard, wild-man hair and wooden staff, the man was simply known as the "Jesus Guy." But today Brian David Mitchell, and his wife, have a wider reputation as the alleged kidnappers of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart. Dressed in white robes and a face-covering veil, Elizabeth was undetected for months — "It wasn't suspicious at all to see a girl in a veil," said one acquaintance — and became convinced that God had commanded her to become Mitchell's second wife.

It's all inexplicably biblical, unless you know something about Mormon Fundamentalists, as Mitchell and others cast out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for practicing polygamy call themselves. The split between the Fundamentalists and the official Mormon church is the backdrop for Jon Krakauer's new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," in which he explores the fanatical fringe of Mormonism and the nexus between extremist faith and predatory violence through the story of a bone-chilling double murder committed in 1984 in the heart of Mormon country.

Krakauer is an adept chronicler of extremists, and he's as intent on understanding religious fanatics as he was in his earlier books on exploring the obsessions of monomaniacal adventurers. The tour guide of choice for secular quests, he brings his skills to bear here on a look at the insular world of Mormon cast-outs. "Under the Banner of Heaven" is illuminating rather than sordid, more provocative than sensational.

On July 24, 1984, 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, were stabbed to death in their suburban home in Utah by Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brenda's brothers-in-law and the uncles of Erica. At first, the setting seems an odd fit for Krakauer. The author of "Into the Wild," the story of a young man whose self-imposed exile led to his death by starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, and "Into Thin Air," the bestselling account of an 1996 expedition to Mt. Everest that killed eight climbers, he has written insightfully about the seductive call of the wilderness. As a self-professed agnostic with no ties to Mormonism, he doesn't bring to this book the same visceral sense he did to his others. But if "Under the Banner of Heaven" is a less urgent, more standard work of nonfiction, by no means is that a deal-breaker.

How do people convince themselves — and seemingly sane people around them — that God wants them to commit terrible crimes? Should we treat as mentally ill those who say they murdered, raped or kidnapped according to God's instructions? These critical questions are central to understanding the Smart kidnapping and the murders that are at the heart of Krakauer's story.

Few real-life characters teeter as far out on the edge as Dan and Ron Lafferty. The brothers come from a Mormon family "admired for their industriousness and probity" (although, Krakauer tells us, their father regularly beat his wife and children and clubbed the family dog to death with a baseball bat in front of them). They grew up to be steady churchgoers and devoted husbands. Then Dan started reading about polygamy.

The Mormon church banned what it called plural marriage in 1890, after the United States government threatened to seize all the church's assets if it refused to give up the practice. Yet between 30,000 and 100,000 Fundamentalists defiantly participate in plural marriages today, according to Krakauer.

After Dan Lafferty joined forces with a polygamist guru, he declared himself ready for "spiritual wifery" and tried to persuade his five brothers to join him. Ron, the oldest, was the most persuadable. When Ron threatened to marry off his teenage daughters as plural wives, his wife divorced him and took their six children to Florida. He blamed his family's departure on Brenda, the wife of his youngest brother, Allen, who fought the brothers' infatuation. Depressed and angry, Ron received what he said was a revelation from God commanding him to "remove" Brenda and her baby. Four months later, he and Dan knocked on Allen's door, found Brenda and killed her with a butcher's knife after a struggle. Then Dan walked upstairs to Erica's crib and slit the child's throat.

It's a crime that makes sense only in the upside-down world of faith run amok. Krakauer roots Mormon Fundamentalism in the founding traditions of the church and shows in rich detail the role polygamy played in the lives and theology of the Mormons' most important figures, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. "The Lord, it seemed to him," Krakauer writes of Smith, "must surely have intended man to know the love of more than one wife or He wouldn't have made the prospect so enticing."

Krakauer also traces to Smith and Young the Lafferty brothers' inspiration to kill in the name of faith. It's a version of history that's anathema to the official Mormon leadership: Today's Latter-day Saints hardly agree, as Krakauer writes, that "to comprehend Dan Lafferty" one "must begin with" Joseph Smith, whose "personality still holds extraordinary sway over Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists alike." In a statement denouncing Krakauer's book, church officials correctly point out that he doesn't include their point of view about the Lafferty murders — or much of anything else. But their objections, which ignore the preponderance of historic evidence, do little to discount his thesis that there is an enduring link between Mormon-inspired zeal and violent crimes.

To gain insight into the alternative reality of Mormon Fundamentalism, Krakauer takes us to three of its centers: Colorado City, Ariz., a town of 4,000 on the Utah border; Bountiful, a community of 700 in the Canadian bottom-lands; and Colonia LeBaron, home to 3,500 in Chihuahua, Mexico. (In each place, his guide is an insider who has fallen off the Fundamentalist wagon.) Here Krakauer portrays the disturbing webs of family relationships — with pairs of sisters married to one man and adopted daughters married to their fathers — that exist in these towns. Giant families live in giant houses, often supported by welfare checks and food stamps. Because polygamy is illegal in every state, Fundamentalist men typically marry only one woman, and the others are considered single mothers. According to Krakauer, the men avoid prosecution for having sex with minors and for plural marriages because in these towns Fundamentalists control the police force and make up the juries.

None of this is good news for the women who decide they've had enough. Their stories make for some of the book's most disturbing chapters: One woman was married at 16 to a 57-year-old man with five other wives and was ordered after his death to marry a violent 54-year-old with four wives. After the woman ran away, she married a third man who sexually molested her 13-year-old daughter. Finally, she burned down her house and fled the town with her five children.

Krakauer wisely lets these stories speak for themselves. Still, his portrayals aren't entirely satisfying. The reader comes away repulsed rather than moved by these people and their vision of holy living. Krakauer also includes a chapter about Smart. Mostly cobbled from news reports, it doesn't offer much insight.

In conclusion, Krakauer turns to Dan and Ron Lafferty's trials for murder. The contrast between the brothers is one of the book's great strengths. Dan is Krakauer's most important and intriguing source; interviewed in prison, where he is serving two life sentences, he is cogent and self-assured. "At times when I've started to wonder if maybe what I did was a terrible mistake, I've looked back and asked myself, 'What would I have done differently?' " he tells Krakauer. "Did I feel God's hand guiding me on the twenty-fourth of July 1984?' And then I remember very clearly, 'Yes, I was guided by the hand of God.' "

The sanity of Ron Lafferty, however, was a matter of legal dispute. He wore a sign reading "Exit only" on the seat of his prison jumpsuit to one hearing because of his belief that an evil homosexual spirit was trying to invade his body through his anus. After a jury found him guilty, a federal appeals court worried that he might not have been competent to stand trial because of his belief that he answered only to the laws of God. The court vacated the jury's verdict — a decision with potentially unsettling implications. As Krakauer asks, "If Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn't everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?"

If laws are to apply fairly, then the answer has to be no. The state medicated Ron, put him on trial again and found psychiatrists to say that his brand of zealotry wasn't psychotic. He is now awaiting execution.

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Legal Affairs magazine.



Books: Violence in the history of Mormonism

"American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857" by Sally Denton
Knopf, $26.95

"Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith"
by Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, $26

By John Freeman
Special to The Seattle Times

Asked why he adores music far more than religion, the narrator of James Wood's recent novel "The Book Against God" replies: "Music, when I last looked, has not caused centuries of wars."

This summer, America's most successful homegrown religion, Mormonism, comes under the scrutiny of this charge as investigative journalist Sally Denton and author Jon Krakauer ("Into Thin Air") deliver tales of shocking violence carried out in the name of the faith. Read side-by-side, the books raise startling questions about the roots of this modern religion and its attempts to distance itself from its past.

"American Massacre" re-creates the event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when nearly 200 peaceful Arkansas farmers traveling through Utah territory were slaughtered by Mormon settlers. Denton then recasts the history of the Mormon religion through its lens, crafting a powerfully readable, if disturbing, glimpse into the church's more belligerent strains.


Polygamist Tom Green is surrounded by his five wives at their homes in Trout Creek, Utah, in 2000. They are, from left, Hannah, Lee Ann, Shirley, Linda and Cari. At the time the photo was taken, Lee Ann was pregnant with Green’s 30th child. Green was found guilty of four counts of bigamy and one count of criminal failure to pay child support in 2001, and is serving a five-year sentence.


Violence, she argues, was there from the beginning. Even before Mormons were heavily persecuted, driven further west by angry mobs who resented their financial dominance, there was a militarylike air to the church.

Denton describes how founder Joseph Smith was known to carry several pistols and walked with a bulldog on a leash. He later traded the title of church president for "general."

As internal strife grew in the church over the issue of polygamy, Denton writes, Smith exacerbated outside conflicts to draw attention away from the church's divisions. Loyalty was tested by conscripting followers to arms, and in this fashion Smith amassed a militia one quarter the size of the U.S. Army.

To enforce his rule, Smith also organized a militia of avenging angels known as "The Danites," or the Sons of Dan, who introduced a ritualized murder called "blood atonement," in which the murderer provided "the victim with eternal salvation by slitting his throat."

John Doyle Lee, a convert who became church leader Brigham Young's second in command, "believed passionately" in blood atonement, writes Denton. "The killing of Gentiles (non-Mormons) was considered a means of grace and virtuous deed," Lee once wrote.

Young (Smith's successor as head of the church) was aware of this belief and used it to his advantage, according to Denton. And he often blamed murders carried out by Mormons — most notably, she claims, of a government surveyor by the name of John Gunnison — on nearby Indian tribes.

And so, whatever responsibility Young had for the slaughter — Denton claims he inflamed Mormons in the region by blaspheming the wagon train in advance of its arrival — Lee took the fall for the Mountain Meadows massacre.

In the aftermath, Lee felt terribly led astray by his faith in Young, whom he believed carried the word of God. After years of delay and two trials, he told a cautionary tale when he finally faced a firing squad in 1877 for the massacre: "See how and what I have come to this day. I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner."

Jon Krakauer offers a slightly more sympathetic version of the church's violent history — and the myths that surround it — in his grimly fascinating new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," which centers around an event that took place July 24, 1984, when two fundamentalist Mormons, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their brother's wife, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, because they believed God instructed them to do so.

Weaving deftly between past and present, Krakauer connects the horrible circumstances of this murder with the early culture of Mormonism and the dark stain of Mountain Meadows.

Unlike Denton, whose focus remains mostly on the past, Krakauer also provides a glimpse into how this past echoes with the church today, showing how extreme sects of the Mormon faith have persisted and continue to operate outside the oversight of the mainstream church and even the U.S. government.

Although Krakauer casts some sections in an overly familiar true-crime style, he astutely reveals the way Ron Lafferty's obedience to a revelation mirrors the devotion of John Doyle Lee to Brigham Young. According to Ron Lafferty, the Lord spoke to him, saying, "It is My Will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward."

As Krakauer puts it, Ron and Dan turned to the Book of Mormon and found a fateful charge to overcome their fears. "Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth His righteous purposes," they read. "It is better that one man should perish, than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief."

Not surprisingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disagrees with much of Krakauer's analysis and sent out rebuttals to book editors in advance of the book's publication. A church spokesman says Krakauer "does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes. He finds sufficient zealots and extremists in the past 150 years to help him tell his story, and by extrapolation tars every Mormon with the same brush."

Both books show that the incident at Mountain Meadows refuses to be buried. And until it's fully addressed, these two books argue, that doomed wagon train will cast a shadow over the success of Mormonism today.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.


Exploring a 19th-century atrocity

"American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857" by Sally Denton
Knopf, $26.95

By Michael Kenney, Globe Correspondent, 6/24/2003

In early September 1857, in a lush and beautiful meadow in Utah, a wagon train of emigrants bound from Arkansas for California was surrounded, besieged over five days, and finally massacred. The perpetrators were Mormon militia posing as Indians.

''The severe treatment of God-fearing emigrants by God-fearing Mormons has bewildered historians and other writers for more than a century,'' writes investigative reporter Sally Denton. The atrocity was so bewildering, and seemingly so senseless, that it demands the careful investigation and eloquent recounting that it receives in Denton's book ''American Massacre.''

As is the case with other incidents that will too readily come to a reader's mind, what happened at Mountain Meadows was the result of a religious fanaticism feeding on political paranoia -- all overlaying the endemic violence of the frontier. What is so revolting here is that unlike the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Mountain Meadows was not the action of one or two twisted minds but involved the complicity of established authority.

How high up in the Mormon establishment that complicity went is the matter of Denton's investigative reporting. While her recounting of the massacre itself leaves little to the imagination, what is likely to remain in the reader's mind is the situation of the survivors -- 17 children under the age of 8, spared because of Mormon belief that they were considered ''innocent blood.''

They were taken to a nearby Mormon's ranch. ''The blood of their parents, sisters, and brothers still wet on their skin and clothes, they are hysterical from what they have just seen,'' Denton writes. At the ranch, they ''exert a kind of hold of their own'' on even ''the murderers of their families who have escorted them there . . . all of them will be haunted afterward by the unbroken sobs and wailing, the inconsolable, unforgettable grief of the young survivors.''

Initially, the perpetrators -- who included leaders of several Mormon communities -- blamed the massacre on the notably peaceful Paiute Indian tribe. But as one of the survivors, the son of the emigrant party's leader, recalled, ''My father was killed by Indians, [but] when they washed their faces they were white men.''

Whatever the complicity of Mormon leaders in the massacre, it occurred within the context of religious fanaticism -- and political paranoia. Four years before, a government surveying party exploring possible routes for a transcontinental railroad had been murdered by Mormon militia.

Even as the Arkansas emigrants were entering the Utah territory in early August 1857, Mormon leader Brigham Young was declaring it the independent state of Deseret, proclaiming, at a mountaintop ceremony near Salt Lake City, that ''This american  Continent will be Zion, for it is so spoken of by the Prophets.''

Already, in response to the murder of the surveying party, Congress had declared Utah to be in a state of insurrection and no less than one-sixth of the entire US Army was being mobilized to put down the insurrection.

As Denton describes the Mormon view, ''The godless American government's moving against them signaled the beginning of their Armageddon scenario, which they believed would end, happily and unfailingly, with the ascendancy of Young and the Mormon priesthood to rule the Kingdom of God on earth.''

Reports of witnesses, including some participants, soon implicated a number of Mormon leaders, including John D. Lee, a militia leader who was an adopted son of Brigham Young. But, writes Denton, ''efforts were under way to conceal any role Brigham Young or the church hierarchy might have had in the episode. With so many innocents dead, and the likelihood of details of the slaughter reaching the rest of the nation, Young's deniability would be crucial if the church was to go on.''

And as soldiers approached Utah, Mormon intermediaries in Washington persuaded President James Buchanan to promise ''a full pardon to the Mormons in exchange for allowing the army to set up camp near Salt Lake City and install'' newly-appointed federal officials for the territory.

Subsequently, as Denton has written in The New York Times, ''as part of a deal for statehood, Lee was executed by firing squad in 1877.''

Denton, the child of Mormons, has made an issue of Mormon leadership complicity, writing in the Times that ''to acknowledge complicity on the part of church leaders runs the risk of calling into question Brigham Young's divinity and the Mormon belief that they are God's chosen people.'' But, she argues, ''without a sustained attempt at accountability and atonement, the church will not escape the hovering shadow of that horrible crime.''

A letter to the Times, identified as a reply ''on behalf of'' the Mormon Church, says that research in which the church has cooperated and which is to be published next year ''will shed light and understanding on the event.''

Readers of “American Massacre” will be waiting.

This story ran on page C6 of the Boston Globe on 6/24/2003.


Among the believers

Two books - a memoir and a tale of true crime - explore the drama and dogma of Mormonism

By Terryl L. Givens, 7/27/2003

''When the subject of religiously inspired bloodshed comes up,'' Jon Krakauer writes in ''Under the Banner of Heaven,'' ''many Americans immediately think of Islamic fundamentalism.'' Hoping to improve upon this imaginationally challenged response, Krakauer sets out to trace a story of savage murder and depravity to a home-grown source. In 1984, the two Lafferty brothers, Dan and Ron, brutally killed a woman and her infant daughter, convinced that God had so commanded them.

This book is therefore a lurid story of heinous murder and mental depravity. It is also an account of modern polygamists of the American West and the Mormonism of America's past. Krakauer takes us on a sordid journey into a modern renegade culture that has institutionalized child rape and abuse, and largely perfected both the degradation of women and the exploitation of the welfare state. But it is a book in search of a larger purpose.

Mormons, murder, and polygamy form a suggestive triad, reminiscent of the racy potboilers of the 19th century. Those novels and pseudo-memoirs labeled Mormonism ''the modern abomination,'' and fed a public fascination with the demonized religion that led Senator Aaron Harrison Cragin to declare from the Senate floor in 1870 that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had an altar ''in the temple block, upon which human sacrifices were to be made.'' The same fad led a popular preacher, the Rev. De Witt Talmage, in 1881 to impute the assassination of President James Garfield to the same religion, since the crime clearly had ''the ugliness of a Mormon, the licentiousness of a Mormon, the cruelty of a Mormon, the murderous spirit of a Mormon.''

Endeavoring to avoid such facile sensationalism, Krakauer makes some token gestures at seriousness of purpose, but they fall short, leaving his work entrenched within a 19th-century tradition of caricature and insinuation. ''Under the Banner'' purports to be an investigation into ''the roots of brutality'' and ''the nature of faith.'' To understand how an ostensibly nice religion that produced Donny and Marie Osmond could also produce brutal murderers, we are told, we need to take a ''clear-eyed journey into Mormonism's violent past.'' Really? To understand Ron Lafferty, legally declared a paranoid delusional murderer, Krakauer says we need to go deep into ''this history of an American religion practiced by millions.''

Trying to extrapolate profound truths from isolated examples of religious excess is a dangerous game. The Laffertys were not the first murderers to hear voices, and they won't be the last. But applying Krakauer's model, every David Berkowitz (''Son of Sam'') would provoke an inquiry into the sinister potential of Judaism (after all, Abraham heard voices telling him to kill Isaac). But that would clearly be anti-Semitic. Exactly.

Insofar as Krakauer recounts Mormonism's past, he does it poorly, using outdated sources and discredited reports to portray a Joseph Smith and a Mormonism reminiscent of 19th-century caricatures. His picture of contemporary Mormonism is also seriously misinformed, leaving us with far more overlap between Mormons and renegade polygamists than really exists, and grave misperceptions. Most Mormons do not believe the world will end 7,000 years after Creation; there is no Mormon policy ''strongly admonish[ing] white Saints not to marry blacks''; today's church does not pressure women ''to give birth to as many children'' as possible; and Mormons do not teach that because man is inherently virtuous, atonement is unnecessary. Krakauer irresponsibly misinforms as well on subjects from the ''Book of Mormon'' to the Mountain Meadows Massacre - all in an effort to link deluded modern murderers with a skewed depiction of Mormonism's past and present. His book is ultimately more about doing violence to a faith than uncovering the violence behind a faith.

Perhaps Sir Richard Burton was right. Mormonism, he wrote in resignation, ''as in all other exclusive faiths, [has] an inner life into which I cannot flatter myself [to have] penetrated.'' That may be why Dorothy Allred Solomon's ''Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk'' succeeds so admirably where Krakauer fails. Solomon has produced a book sprinkled with both beauty and ''indelible sadness,'' leaving readers convinced that other accounts of Mormon polygamy are hopelessly reductive. As one who has suffered its trauma, she is especially qualified to tackle the subject in all its ethical and emotional complexity. To read the excerpted letters and journal entries of her grandfather Harvey Allred is to experience the paradigmatic agony of a devout and gentle man virtually destroyed by his conviction that he was called upon to participate in an Abrahamic test. However, once freed from the constraints of centralized supervision and institutional sanction, the self-prescribed polygamy Allred practiced became a magnet for both devout nonconformists and free-wheeling fanatics and sociopaths.

Solomon is too respectful of the sanctity of individual conscience, and too subtle in her intelligence, to stoop to silly generalizations or sensationalistic cliches about the roots of religious violence. Every group has its lunatic fringe, she observes, and any ''religious fixation in a physical world can lead to insanity.'' But tyranny, she reminds us, can be found anywhere - ''not just in patriarchy, not just in polygamy.'' Such an insight would have saved Krakauer a futile, however titillating, journey.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer

Doubleday, 372 pp., $26


Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy

By Dorothy Allred Solomon

Norton, 399 pp., $24.95

Terryl L. Givens is a professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond and author of ''By the Hand of Mormon.''

This story ran on page E8 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.








Mormons who murder

Hells bells

Jul 3rd 2003
From The Economist print edition

JON KRAKAUER set out to write a book about how the Mormon Church is dealing with its past. He tells how its most influential prophet, Joseph Smith, had a predilection for “spiritual marriage” with teenage girls that led to the church's enthusiasm for polygamy in the 19th century. But part way through, Mr Krakauer changed tack. Much of the book is concerned with the murder of a woman and her baby daughter by her two Mormon brothers-in-law. They believed God had instructed them to kill her.

The result is a powerful portrait of how two seemingly ordinary Americans became murderers. It describes the peculiar world of Mormon fundamentalists—extremists within the church, still “marrying” many women and breeding vast families, and loathing government, even while accepting welfare payments for their (technically) single mothers. It describes the problems that fundamentalism creates for a country founded on religious tolerance: a court threw out the conviction of one of the brothers, on the grounds that anyone who argued that he answered to the laws of God and not of man was incompetent to stand trial.

The two parts of Mr Krakauer's book co-exist rather uneasily. He never really explains how the church came to flourish, so much so that it is said by some to be the fastest growing faith in the western hemisphere. Nor does he explore, in any meaningful way, the contrast between the advance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints around the world as a church of the upwardly mobile and the respectable middle class, and the extremism of the church's American fundamentalists.

The future growth of the Mormons probably lies beyond American shores, fuelled by their energetic proselytising. As that truth dawns in Utah, the Mormon fathers may try to take a tougher line with their wild men. But, like other moderates who try to out-reason the blithe followers of the Almighty, they may find it hard to make themselves heard. Or, as Mr Krakauer puts it: “Common sense is no match for the voice of God.”

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.
By Jon Krakauer.
Doubleday; 372 pages; $26.
To be published in Britain by Macmillan in September



    St. Petersburg



Obsession, murder and Mormonism

St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 2003


A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer

Doubleday, $26



The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857

By Sally Denton

Knopf, $26.95

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more than 11-million strong, is a force to reckon with in America. From its Salt Lake City headquarters, it dominates Utah's political, economic and moral landscape, but its influence hardly stops there. Each year, 30,000 lay missionaries are dispersed to spread the faith. Mormons, as its followers are known, make up this country's fastest-growing religious denomination.

And yet, in spite of this success, many Gentiles - the name Mormons give to all who lie beyond its fold - still hold the church at arm's length. And Jon Krakauer's chilling book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, is unlikely to close the distance.

Krakauer, the outdoors writer best known for Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, may seem more suited to write about physical quests than spiritual ones. Indeed, his book is not a philosophical inquiry, but a piece of solid reporting wrapped around the theme of his earlier books: obsession.

Both Krakauer and Sally Denton, in her new bookAmerican Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857, argue that Mormonism is built on what she succinctly describes as "holy war passion." Like Islam, with which the LDS church has been compared, the church evolved with unwavering conviction and, under persecution from outsiders, a circle-the-wagons mentality.

Krakauer's focus is the fanatics who have grown out of this rich soil. He builds his book around two grisly murders that a pair of brothers, Dan and Ron Lafferty, committed in 1984. Recounting an event so weird and violent that it brings to mind Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, he describes how the brothers decided to follow "the principle" and take additional wives. The women to whom they already were married took exception with this idea, and the wife of another brother defended them.

Furious, the brothers slaughtered her and her infant daughter - their sister-in-law and niece - with less remorse than a farmer feels butchering a hog.

The two were convicted of murder and sent to prison, where Dan still maintains, "I was doing God's will, which is not a crime."

Such inexplicable reasoning begs for context.Under the Banner of Heaven supplies it, describing how Mormonism holds that any follower can receive divine revelation. This idea - that each member has a pipeline to God - creates a big problem for the hierarchy and explains why more than 200 splinter groups have broken off from the official church since it began in 1830.

To combat this, Krakauer claims, the LDS culture "considers obedience to be among the highest virtues" - but, even so, it's unable to prevent the wackos from coming out of the woodwork.

Krakauer takes readers back to the man whose word was God for Mormonism in the beginning: its founder, Joseph Smith, a charismatic figure with hallmarks of the huckster. Smith claimed that an angel brought him gold tablets that laid out the true religion, although he was required to give the tablets back, so no artifact exists to support his claim. It was Smith who, in 1843, also heard the call to polygamy.

"When I see a pretty woman, I pray for grace," one of Smith's biographers quotes him as saying, and it's clear to Krakauer that the divine call for plural marriage was really a means of sanctifying Smith's own lust. Regardless, it became official Mormon doctrine until 1890, when, under the threat of government intervention, church leaders suddenly switched course.

For some polygamists, this change of soul was nothing less than a sellout. Adhering to their own divine revelations, they went underground, continuing to live with multiple wives - and inspiring the murderous Lafferty boys.

Even now, polygamy flourishes in several isolated pockets across the West. Krakauer estimates the total population of practitioners at 30,000, although some critics have gone as high as 100,000. In these communities, girls as young as 12 and 13 are impregnated by much older men who would be branded sex abusers anywhere else. Meanwhile, the male leaders thumb their noses at the government while defrauding it of huge sums to support their massive broods.

Under the Banner of Heaven and American Massacre both deal with the bloody and infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which about 140 Arkansas settlers were killed while traveling through southern Utah in 1857. Tracking the documentary evidence, Denton concentrates on implicating Mormon leader Brigham Young in the killings.

Adopting the same view, Under the Banner of Heaven uses the event to exemplify the "fanaticism and concomitant brutality" of early Mormon culture. This is an historic fact that the church avoids and most Mormons shun, but which, Krakauer contends, their fundamentalist brethren still idealize.

- Ellen Emry Heltzel is writer and book critic in Portland, Ore. Book Babes, the column she writes with Margo Hammond, appears on the Poynter Institute website at www.poynter.org/bookbabes.



Krakauer weaves '84 murders into enthralling history of Mormon breakaway polygamists
Reviewed by Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2003

Under the Banner of Heaven

A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer


Perhaps it was the setting -- a Southwest Airlines flight packed full of Latter-day Saints heading to Salt Lake City -- but Jon Krakauer's new book on polygamist Mormon sects, "Under the Banner of Heaven," was really coming alive.

I was in the window seat rubbing bodies with a rather large and uncommunicative Mormon from the South Pacific. He was in the middle seat, reading an inspirational magazine published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and intently scribbling calculations on his ticket envelope to figure out the end of history as we know it -- the "Great and Dreadful Day."

No, I'm not kidding. The Saint in the middle seat was as engrossed in his calculations as I was in the latest revelations of Krakauer. His new work is a fantastic read, right up there with "In Cold Blood" and "The Executioner's Song" in its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing for the End Times.

Krakauer's bizarre tale revolves around the true and horrifying 1984 murder of a young woman and her baby daughter by Dan and Ron Lafferty, two brothers who joined a fundamentalist, polygamist Mormon splinter group and soon began following their own twisted revelations.

Krakauer, whose 1997 book "Into Thin Air" helped put narrative nonfiction back on the best-seller lists, masterfully weaves Mormon history and modern polygamy into a seamless story about the strangest subculture of the American Southwest.

It ties together the story of Joseph Smith Jr., the original Mormon prophet,

with the Lafferty brothers' murder spree and the kidnapping and recent recovery of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah girl who spent months living in the wilderness and on the street with Brian David Mitchell, a wandering freelance polygamist who took 14-year-old Elizabeth as his second "wife."

Mitchell and his first wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, were once Latter-day Saints but had been excommunicated for "promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield" from mainline Mormonism.

So were the leaders of Lafferty's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, most recently ruled by the late Rulon Jeffs and his son, Warren, in Colorado City, Ariz.

This isolated town on the Utah border was settled in the late 1800s by ranchers who followed the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage.

In 1890, the mainstream church publicly disavowed the practice of polygamy, ending a virtual war with the U.S. government and allowing Utah to gain statehood.

Mormon polygamy began with Smith, who fomented a radical revolution in American religion and sexuality that long survived his imprisonment in an Illinois jail and murder by an anti-Mormon mob in the summer of 1844.

Smith publicly denied allegations of polygamy in his new religious movement,

but it is now widely acknowledged that Smith took at least 28 wives, including the spouses and teenage daughters of his Mormon brethren.

His successor, Brigham Young, brought the persecuted polygamous sect to the Utah wilderness and for decades continued the practice in open defiance of Congress.

Since its founding, Mormonism has been one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States and is rapidly spreading around the world. Despite its radical, polygamist roots, today's church is home for perhaps the most monogamous and conservative flock in the land.

Nevertheless, thousands of "fundamentalist" Mormons in the United States, Canada and Mexico never gave up the practice of plural marriage, which often blesses the marriage of young teenage girls against their will.

Some of these same fundamentalists follow the even more shocking doctrine of "blood atonement," a violent belief that helped inspire the Lafferty brothers and the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre, the 1857 bloodbath in which a small army of Latter-day Saints and a band of Paiute Indians allegedly murdered about 120 men, women and children traveling in a wagon train from Arkansas.

Krakauer ties this massacre and Indian-Mormon alliance to Brigham Young's military strategy against the U.S. Army, which was headed for a showdown with the polygamous Mormons in the Utah territory.

According to the Book of Mormon, the Indians of North America descended from the Lamanites, one of the lost tribes of Israel. They have dark skin because they rejected the teachings of Jesus and were cursed by God.

Krakauer writes that Mormon scripture "nevertheless taught that the Lamanites/Indians would once again become a 'white and delightsome people' when, during the Last Days before the return of Christ, the Latter-day Saints converted them to Mormonism. The Book of Mormon indeed prophesied that the Lamanites, once redeemed, would join forces with the Mormons to vanquish the Gentiles (non-Mormons), and thereby usher in the Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord."

Not surprisingly, the current leaders of the Mormon church are not happy with the way Krakauer links the Mountain Meadow Massacre, the Lafferty murders and the life and teachings of Smith and Young.

On June 26, just two weeks before the release of "Under the Banner of Heaven," church spokesman Mike Otterson issued a statement charging that Krakauer was "promoting old stereotypes" and "tars every Mormon with the same brush."

"Krakauer's portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is utterly at odds with what I -- and millions like me -- have come to know of the church, its goodness and the decency of its people," Otterson writes.

Otterson is right, but so is Krakauer. Most Mormons most certainly are good and decent people, yet this communion of Saints cannot deny the violence and deviance of its founders, just as they cannot control the action of a few Mormon zealots who kill in the name of God.

Don Lattin is the author of the forthcoming book "Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today" (HarperSanFrancisco).



Krakauer's book on Mormons - who is the more fanatical?


By Michael Pakenham
Sun Staff
Originally published July 20, 2003

Polygamy - called "plural marriages" by its enthusiasts - is the doctrinal issue that has precipitated the greatest resentment, rage and ridicule against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Much else about the Mormon Church has been distressing to outsiders, including especially the intense and well-disciplined secrecy about almost every aspect of the denomination.

Though nothing about the faith is simple, the polygamy controversy is surely an onerous cross - and possibly an unfair one - for Mormons to bear. The principle that men should take multiple wives was official doctrine of the church only from 1886 until 1890. Since then, the practice has been ground for excommunication and has been practiced officially only by apostates or self-designated "Fundamentalist Mormons," who exist outside the mainstream in innumerable self-governing sects spread about the U.S. West and Canada and Mexico.

Mainstream Mormonism, with some 12 million members worldwide, about half in the United States, is the fastest growing religious denomination in this country, where there are more "Saints" than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. Abstemious, heavily tithing, emphasizing strong family solidarity and work ethic, Mormons collectively are a potent force.

The foundation of their faith is a large collection of revelations said to have been given in the 1820s by God to Joseph Smith, the founding prophet. Those doctrines are expanded or amended from time to time by further revelations from God. With a core belief that Mormons are, to the exclusion of all others, God's chosen people, they have 60,000 missionaries spread around the globe at any given time, fulfilling a lifetime requirement of two years of proselytizing.

I have known a few Mormons, but none intimately. All have struck me as having an unusual intensity - capacity for concentration, application, work - combined with a remarkable sense of decency. They have been people of confident peacefulness but extraordinary energy.

I have neither the experience nor the ambition to make sweeping analytic generalities about Mormons. But now comes a book - destined for controversy - that does so. It is Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday, 372 pages, $26). Its cast of characters share that sense of intensity - for good, or, as Krakauer strongly implies, for evil.

Krakauer - author of the immensely successful Into Thin Air and Into the Wild - writes a counterpoint of two themes. One is a history of the church, from its origins till today. The other is a particularly grisly murder saga.

On July 24, 1984, Dan Lafferty and his brother Ron slashed to death Brenda Lafferty, the wife of their youngest brother, Allen, and their 15-month-old daughter, Erica. It happened in the victims' home in American Fork, Utah. Ron was the eldest of five brothers. All were brought up as strict Mormons, but Ron had broken off into his own offshoot fundamentalist sect, defying doctrines of the mainstream church, which excommunicated him, along with Dan and their followers. In defiance of the LDS strictures, Dan and Ron became active marijuana users. Ron spoke and wrote to others of elaborate instructions given him directly by God, including the orders to kill Brenda and Erica because of Brenda's defiance of their sect's mandates.

Dan was sentenced to two life terms and Ron to death. They are both still in prison. Dan spoke at length to Krakauer and others, as well as testifying. He admitted that he had killed first the child and then the mother - but insisted on his innocence: "I was doing God's will, which is not a crime."

Exploring the other theme, Krakauer gives a succinct, brisk and clear history of Mormonism - beginning with Joseph Smith and creation of the church. There are stories of many intricate forced marriages, and associated sexual abuse of girls from 13 upward. There are vivid, often extremely painful stories of persecution and violence both against Mormons and by them.

Krakauer declares that the purpose of the book is to examine fanaticism. "Faith-based violence was present long before Osama bin Laden, and it will be long after his demise," he writes, and concludes: "The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end - wealth, fame, eternal salvation - but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself."

Krakauer, who was brought up an atheist and remains a nonbeliever, writes that he had many Mormon friends in his youth. He spent three years in research and an additional year writing the book.

He writes with almost astonishing narrative force. It is hard to stop reading his text. The rhythm is good, and the sentence structure, clean. It is a powerful book, and in many ways and places a wise one. Yet I was left with a gnawing discomfort that taken as a whole the book's import is to paint mainstream Mormonism as an irrational - almost insane - system of belief.

Even more troublingly, Krakauer's interwoven themes place the murderous acts of the Lafferty brothers in inseparable closeness to the principles and practices of the entire church.

When galley proofs were in circulation among reviewers, the LDS released a stern but dignified rebuttal of what the church leaders took to be "Krakauer's basic arguments, his history, his assumptions, the accuracy of the facts and his conclusions. This is not a book that is notable for either its scholarship or its accuracy."

An attached essay by Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the church's Family and Church History Department, cited a long series of ostensible factual errors and false analyses or inaccurate readings and concluded: "Although other examples could be given, these suffice to demonstrate that Krakauer does violence to Mormon history in order to tell his 'Story of Violent Faith.' "

Krakauer responded to the LDS criticism in a well-reasoned statement that argued - surely futilely - that the church would serve itself and history well by releasing to public scrutiny vast archives that are held in tight secrecy. A spokesman for Doubleday, said that the firm stands "stands fully behind [Krakauer's] reporting and his scholarship" - but that three factual errors pointed out by the Turley critique will be corrected in future editions.

With publication, the inevitable debate will intensify, and sales should proliferate. Among its many buyers will be faithful Mormons - reading the volume, I suspect, in plain brown wrappers.



The New York Times


Jon Krakauer

'Under the Banner of Heaven'



Jon Krakauer

'Under the Banner of Heaven'





The Oregonian


Jeff Baker


The Christian Science Monitor


Jane Lampman

When certainty reigns, reason goes into thin air



Lauren F. Winne

Of marriage and murder

Chicago Sun-Times


Henry Kisor

More literary woes for Mormon elders

Denver Post


Sandra Dallas

The cult of Poligamy



Jon Krakauer





Krakauer Tackles Spiritual Extremes



John Freeman

Murderous events in Mormon history

Rocky Mountain News


Steve Galper

Mormon trail of extremes

USA Today


Deirdre Donahue

Murder by zealot Mormon sect sparks deeper look

The Miami Heral


Anne Bartlett

The alarming link between faith, violence

Cleveland Plan Dealer


Steve Weinberg

Book about murder explores 'dark side' of religious devotion

Raleigh News Observer


Gil Troy

God's country

New Orleans Time-Picayune


Susan Larson

New look at Mormon world

San Antonio Express-News


Greg Jefferson

Extreme Faith

San Jose The Mercury News


Mark Emmons

In the name of God

Book Page


Edward Morris

Violence and faith: a deadly combination

Daily Telegraph


Damian Thompson

The forgotten massacre of September 11

Daily Telegraph


Hilary Spurling

It is a command of God to you



Douglas Kennedy

Saints and sinners in God's own land

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