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Seeing clearly what's right in front of you is one quality of a great reporter. Making connections between what you see, what you know and what you find out is what makes great journalism.

If you see a town of 9,000 people in the northwest corner of Arizona, in one of the least populated areas of the United States, and that town is full of people who call themselves Mormon fundamentalists and practice polygamy, you might think you've found yourself a great story. If you start making connections between the polygamists in Colorado City, Ariz., and those in British Columbia and Mexico (and Woodburn), and then start connecting their beliefs to the history of the Mormon church and a horrific double-murder and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case and the nature of violence and religious belief in America, then you've got yourself a great book.

If your name's Jon Krakauer, that is.

Krakauer has found a fascinating story in plain sight, right in the heart of the American West, and told it with the narrative drive and unflinching honesty that marked his 1998 best seller, "Into Thin Air." Those who were enthralled by that account of disaster atop Mount Everest might be surprised that "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith" is equal parts true crime and religious history. Those who remember Krakauer's earlier "Into the Wild," a gripping account of the fatal consequences of an idealistic young man's attempt to live too close to nature, will see how the Corvallis native is again examining and attempting to understand the line where strong spiritual beliefs and obsessiveness meet. Krakauer may not be writing about mountain climbing anymore, but the subject he has tackled is steeper and more precarious.

"Under the Banner of Heaven" begins with and is built around the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. Their throats were slit by Brenda's brother-in-law, Dan Lafferty, who believed he was acting on a divine revelation that was given by God to his older brother, Ron. The Lafferty brothers were Mormon fundamentalists who wanted to practice polygamy. Brenda, the wife of their younger brother Allen, was a vocal opponent of their plans. Ron Lafferty's wife had recently left him and taken their six children; he blamed Brenda for the breakup of his family.

It's impossible to understand what motivated Ron and Dan Lafferty, Krakauer argues, without understanding Mormon fundamentalism in particular and the nature of religious extremism in general. "When the subject of religiously inspired bloodshed comes up, many Americans think of Islamic fundamentalism, which is to be expected in the wake of the September 11 attacks. . . .," he writes. "But men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since mankind began believing in deities, and extremists exist within all religions. . . . Plenty of these extremists have been homegrown, corn-fed Americans."

Mormonism is a homegrown, American religion. Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 11 million members worldwide and has more than 60,000 missionaries in the field, actively attempting to convert others to what its members believe is the one true faith. Krakauer points out that there are "more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians" in the United States and more Mormons than Jews in the world. Mormonism, he notes, is poised to become the first major world religion since Islam, and he quotes Harold Bloom's 1992 prediction that if Mormonism continues to grow at its current rate, within 60 years governing this country will be "impossible without Mormon cooperation."

As a relatively new religion, founded and practiced by literate people who kept diaries and wrote letters, the history of Mormonism is readily available. This is a mixed blessing to the church's hierarchy, which has traditionally insisted on "faith-promoting" historical interpretation and has denied or whitewashed embarrassing aspects of its past. Mormon scholars who depart from the accepted version of events have been censured and in some cases excommunicated.

No subject is more sensitive to Mormon leaders than polygamy. Smith married at least 33 women and practiced polygamy for at least 10 years before formally announcing the divine revelation that sanctioned the practice in 1843. Many of his wives were barely into their teens and it was not unusual for him to tell them that God told him to marry them and they would be damned for all eternity if they refused.

After Smith and his brother were assassinated in 1844, Brigham Young won a brief struggle for control of the LDS church and led the Mormons to Utah, where they could practice their religion, including polygamy, in what was then a remote territory. Young set up a theocracy with himself as supreme leader and took at least 20 wives while defying federal laws against polygamy. His successor, John Taylor, said in 1880 that polygamy "is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it."

Ten years later, Taylor's successor, Wilford Woodruff, said that it was "the will of the Lord" that Mormons stop practicing polygamy. That revelation led to statehood for Utah and to the assimilation of the Mormons into American society. Most historians believe it saved the LDS church, but there was a significant minority within the church, then and now, who thought it was a secular, political compromise and a betrayal of Smith's vision.

Those people are known as Mormon fundamentalists. They include the majority of those who live in Colorado City, the Lafferty brothers and Brian David Mitchell, the accused kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart. Mormon fundamentalists are divided into many sects that often feud bitterly with each other, but they are united in their belief that they are practicing true Mormonism and that the LDS church has sold out its past and its principles. They point out that Smith's revelation concerning polygamy remains a part of Mormon scripture.

The church's response is that polygamy is wrong and Mormon fundamentalists are not Mormons. The Laffertys (and Mitchell) were excommunicated long before they were accused of crimes. LDS president Gordon Hinckley told Larry King in 1998 that the fundamentalists "have no connection to us whatsoever. They don't belong to the church. There actually are no Mormon fundamentalists."

For Krakauer, the question is not whether the fundamentalists are Mormons (he thinks they're a branch of the same tree), but what drives someone to believe in anything so strongly that he will give his teen-age daughter over to be married to a much older man (the way polygamists routinely do) or kill an innocent woman and child (the way Dan Lafferty did). Spiritual devotion is one thing; spiritual obsession is another, and it is the nature of obsession that Krakauer is trying to understand.

He is not the first author to use a crime as a way to understand Mormonism. Mikal Gilmore's "Shot in the Heart" and (to a lesser extent) Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" examined Mormon culture through the twisted history of Gary Gilmore. Robert Lindsey's "A Gathering of Saints" is a thorough look at the forgerer and murderer Mark Hofmann (who, incredibly, shares a prison cell with Dan Lafferty).

Krakauer writes that he grew up around Mormons in Corvallis and admired "the unflinching certainty" of their faith. The LDS church has denounced "Under the Banner of Heaven," but its criticism seems misdirected, not only because Krakauer is respectful of their beliefs but because he is more interested in what he calls "the far territory of the extreme." To him, the story is why a polygamous community is allowed to flourish on the Arizona-Utah border and why Dan Lafferty's response to his brother's murderous revelation was "all I can say is make sure it's from God."

Krakauer writes that "when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God -- as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest."


from the July 17, 2003 edition

When certainty reigns, reason goes into thin air

Jon Krakauer looks for the nature of faith in the violent murders committed by aberrant Mormons

By Jane Lampman

"God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government.... Polygamy is a divine institution.... The United States cannot abolish it."

Those are the provocative words of John Taylor, who in the late 19th century followed Brigham Young as "president, prophet, seer, and revelator" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A decade later, however, the Mormon church reversed itself so that Utah could become a state.

Today, the church excommunicates those who practice polygamy, or "plural marriage." Yet communities of polygamists exist in Utah and elsewhere, and apparently continue to draw recruits from the mainstream. They see current leaders as having abandoned the true faith practiced by church founder Joseph Smith and successor Brigham Young, and believe God will raise up from among them a leader who will set all back in order.

It is into this zealous and startling world that Jon Krakauer takes readers of his latest book, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." The best-selling author of "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild" - portrayals of people who explore physical extremes - turns here to an exploration of religious extremism.

In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty, devout Mormon fundamentalists, brutally murdered their young sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter because she had urged wives to resist their plan to become polygamists. Dan, now serving a life sentence, and Ron, on death row, firmly believe that God told them to commit the murders and have shown no remorse.

In unraveling the origins of these horrific murders the author expressly links the violent acts not only to religious fanaticism but also to the history and teachings of America's fastest-growing religion.

Indeed, he aims to understand such fundamentalists "for what [they] may tell us about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith."

A professed agnostic, Krakauer early on expresses his view of religion - "those murky sectors of the heart and head that prompt most of us to believe in God - and compel an impassioned few, predictably, to carry that irrational belief to its logical end.

"Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion," he adds.

It may not be surprising, then, that while this compelling book raises important issues - some pertinent to today's news - it also delivers a skewed and misleading picture of a faith now practiced by 11 million people worldwide.

Krakauer interweaves the story of the Laffertys, intimate views of polygamist life in several communities, and the history of Mormonism. He zeroes in on elements of church history particularly pertinent to his theme: violent clashes with non-Mormons in Missouri and Illinois (including Joseph Smith's murder by a mob); Smith's polygamy, which at first was surreptitious and later enunciated as a divine commandment; and church leaders' involvement in the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre of a wagon train heading to California.

It's a provocative mix, which draws legitimately on the work of some Mormon historians who published church history with all its warts, history which leaders would have preferred to keep secret. But it is not tempered by discussion with church leaders or ordinary Latter-day Saints, whose lives evince a very different ethos.

A brief analysis of the recent case of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped by a Mormon fundamentalist keen to make her one of his seven wives, breaks no ground beyond news accounts.

The book's value (apart from as a riveting read) lies in its illuminating depiction of theocratic, polygamist communities, and family life as told by participants. It reveals marriages of teenagers and others "by commandment," sexual abuse - and how thousands are able to live freely and often take in millions in welfare checks while defying the law. It also includes voices of men and women who view the practice positively, such as a Mormon mother and daughter whose family is now for the first time considering polygamy.

After the church banned plural marriage in 1890, some leaders continued to condone and even practice it for a time; most Saints eventually turned against it. Yet, says Krakauer, Section 132 of the church's "Doctrine and Covenants" - Smith's revelation on the subject - remains part of scripture.

The recent Supreme Court decision on the private relations of homosexuals has already led some Americans to warn that it paves the way for a religious-freedom case for polygamy. Indeed, fundamentalists have pressed that case in the past.

Not surprisingly, the book has stirred strong reaction from the church. The implication that the Laffertys' crime followed in a line of violent past actions resulting from church teachings could lead readers to conclude "that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency to violence," said Mike Otterson, church spokesman, in a statement. "Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi ... and every Arab a terrorist."

The author's propensity to see religion as the natural source of violence is simplistic. Those who have studied religion's involvement in conflict see a much more complex picture - faith intertwining with nationalist/cultural elements on the political scene and with psychological/social factors in individual experience.

Krakauer himself mentions, for instance, that the Laffertys' strict father regularly hit them and their mother, and beat a family dog to death with a baseball bat in front of them. Just before the murders, Ron Lafferty's wife had left him and taken the children to Florida, and he was also in dire economic straits.

This is a gripping tale likely to capture a wide audience and draw attention to the Mormon church and little-known aspects of its history and teachings. It offers no clue, however, to what has spurred the faith's astonishing growth in recent decades. Nor does Krakauer offer, in the end, fresh insights on his stated aim of learning more about "the nature of faith."

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

Under the Banner of HEaven: The Story of Violent Faith
By Jon Krakauer
Doubleday 372 pp., $26









Of Marriage and Murder

Two new books shed light on the hidden - and sometimes violent - world of Mormon fundamentalism

By Lauren F. Winne

Lauren F. Winner is the author of a spiritual memoir, "Girl Meets God." Her book "Mudhouse Sabbath" will be out this fall.

July 13, 2003

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

When you hear the word "Mormonism," you might conjure up the polite, neatly dressed missionaries who are ubiquitous on many city street corners. You probably picture Utah. And you almost certainly think of polygamy.

The history of Mormons and polygamy - or, as some chroniclers prefer, plural marriage - is fairly straightforward. In accord with a revelation given to Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy in the mid 19th century. Plural marriage, of course, was rather out-of-keeping with the mores of Victorian America, and politicians, preachers and journalists across the country were horrified when they began to hear reports of Mormon patriarchs with dozens of doting wives. In 1862, Congress passed a bill criminalizing bigamy; 17 years later, that bill was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Monogamous marriage, said the court, was an institution on which "society may be said to be built," and the religious freedoms of the first amendment did not include the right to subvert such institutions.) Washington declared that the Utah territory would never become a state so long as it was home to plural marriage. Finally, in 1890, the president of the LDS church received a revelation decrying polygamy. Utah was admitted to statehood in 1896.

What began as a somewhat wacky 19th century sect has morphed into one of America's most straitlaced, respectable religious groups. The LDS Church is eager to distance itself from polygamy. To wit, a 1998 interview between LDS President Gordon Hinckley and Larry King. When King pressed Hinckley about polygamy, the Mormon leader was vehement in his disavowal: "[Polygamy is] a civil offense. It's in violation of the law. We have nothing to do with it. We're totally distanced from it....[P]eople mistakenly assume that this church has something to do with it. It has nothing whatever to do with it. It has had nothing to do with it for a very long time."

But there has always been a fringe group of so-called Mormon fundamentalists who live in the hills of the American West and practice plural marriage. They live in sprawling compounds with bedrooms for each "sister-wife" and gigantic dinner tables that can seat 30 or 40 mothers and children. These folks have been excommunicated by the LDS Church, but the polygamists say they are only being faithful to the original revelations of Joseph Smith.

Contemporary polygamists usually manage to stay hidden; they keep to themselves, eschewing publicity and, generally, contact with the state (though some polygamous families do rely on welfare to support all their kids). Every once in a while, something draws the nation's attention to the polygamous communities. Usually that something is a crime.

Most recently, Americans found themselves reading about polygamy because of Elizabeth Smart. In 2002, the 14-year-old Salt Lake City girl was kidnapped by a Mormon fundamentalist, Brian David Mitchell, who performed a trumped-up marriage ceremony and then raped her - making her, in his eyes, his second wife.

Smart's kidnapping is not the first crime to be linked to polygamy and Mormon fundamentalism. In "Under the Banner of Heaven," Jon Krakauer re-creates an earlier event, the double murder committed in 1984 by Ron and Dan Lafferty. The Lafferty boys appeared to be faithful, run-of-the-mill Mormons, but gradually they and their three brothers turned away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and immersed themselves in the strange world of Mormon fundamentalism, studying at the self-styled School of the Prophets in Provo, Utah, and smoking pot. Dan Lafferty took a second wife. The Laffertys prayed hard and studied Mormon scripture and believed they were receiving regular revelations from God. The Lafferty boys' wives seemed to accept their husbands' newfound fundamentalism - except for Brenda, the wife of Allen Lafferty. Brenda refused to go along; as her sister Betty puts it, "She resisted Allen as much as she could." Brenda also urged her sister-in-law, Ron's wife, to divorce, which the other Mrs. Lafferty eventually did, packing up and moving her kids to Florida. It was plain to Ron and Dan that Brenda was a pernicious influence on the Lafferty clan. And so, on July 24, 1984, they murdered Brenda and her baby daughter.

"Under the Banner of Heaven" is not merely a stunningly researched account of the Lafferty murders; it is an evenhanded inquiry into the nature of religious belief itself. How do we assess the Lafferty brothers' religious idiom? What is the difference between their claim that they received unique revelations from God and a traditional Christian's belief that something real might be happening when he prays? "Under the Banner of Heaven" is also something of a challenge to Gordon Hinckley's insistence that Mormon fundamentalism has nothing whatever to do with Mormonism. Yes, Krakauer acknowledges, the LDS Church excommunicates anyone who has anything to do with polygamy, but it is impossible to separate Mormonism proper from the religious worldview of the Lafferty brothers. Fundamentalist polygamists, Krakauer insists, may be renegades, but they are renegades with roots in America's flourishing homegrown church.

Krakauer's elegant reportage is complemented nicely by another new book on polygamy, Dorothy Allred Solomon's memoir, "Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk." Solomon tells of her family's long history with polygamy - half-siblings who passed for twins; the grandfather who served in the Idaho State Senate but was thwarted in his run for the U.S. Congress when his polygamous skeletons poked out of the closet. Solomon, who left Mormon fundamentalism and is now the monogamous wife of her high-school sweetheart, is the 28th of her father's 48 children. Her childhood was one of hiding and skulking about. She was never given a birth certificate and was admonished not to befriend schoolchildren who came from monogamous homes. Her parents were arrested in the anti-polygamous raids of the 1940s, and much of her childhood was spent running from the law - a few months in Mexico; a spell in Mountain City, Nevada, where "[n]ine of us lived in a single room with no running water or bathrooms."

But her book is not an expose or a self-pitying rant; Solomon chronicles the hardships and costs of polygamy, but she also writes respectfully and affectionately of her childhood, of the relationships she forged with all of her father's wives, of the powerful spiritual ethos that infused everyday acts, from setting the table to playing in the creek.

"Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk" will find a large readership because polygamy is intriguing for most of us, and because Solomon's prose is clean and forceful and lovely. But readers who pick up this memoir merely because they are titillated by the topic of polygamy will find that they are drawn in by the deeper story Solomon tells. She has written a memoir that is, to be sure, captivating in its polygamous particulars. But more importantly, she has written a memoir about universal things, about how to tell the truth and about the hard road of family love.






More literary woes for Mormon elders

Henry Kisor

July 6, 2003


It has been a difficult literary summer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not only has the celebrated writer Jon Krakauer parsed the church's violent history in Under the Banner of Heaven (reviewed above), but so have two lesser-known authors--Sally Denton in American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857 (Knopf, $26.95) and Dorothy Allred Solomon in Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy (Norton, $24.95).

The Krakauer book in particular has so disturbed Mormon elders that last week they took the unusual step of issuing an early broadside, hoping to discredit the book even before it was published.

"The book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian," declared Mike Otterson, the church's media relations director. "He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things. ... 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. ... One could be forgiven for concluding that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency to violence. And so Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi, every Japanese a fanatic, and every Arab a terrorist."

Otterson's attack was accompanied by a long testament by Mormon historian Richard E. Turley Jr., who thumped Krakauer for his admitted agnosticism and charged he had committed several historical and doctrinal errors. The author, Turley also said, had relied on hostile historians rather than "more balanced" ones.

In my view, a careful reader of Krakauer's book is unlikely to believe he unfairly tars present-day Mormons with the brush of violence. Just about every great religion has endured periods of bloody fanaticism and scandal, and it's only honest and mature to allow the dirty laundry to be aired--and perhaps make amends, as other churches have done, instead of issuing booming denials.

But, as Krakauer said in response to the Mormon elders' attack, the church has "long endeavored to retain proprietary control over how [its] history is presented to the world," and has declared it believes accounts of its "official and highly expurgated" history should be "celebratory rather than critical."

In evidence Krakauer quotes Apostle Boyd Packer, second in line to head the church, as declaring in 1981 that "some things that are true are not very useful ... In the Church we are not neutral. ... There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it."

One ongoing battle is over what, before Sept. 11, 2001, was called the worst religious atrocity ever committed in America: the slaughter in 1857 of 140 Arkansas emigrants in a wagon train at a Utah pass called Mountain Meadows.

In her riveting American Massacre, Sally Denton (herself of Mormon descent) is the latest writer to contend--persuasively in her case--that the responsibility did not lie just on an outcast Mormon named John Doyle Lee and the Indians he led. The ultimate onus, she writes, belongs to Brigham Young, the absolute monarch of Utah who, pressured by financial crises and increasing scrutiny from the federal government, incited the attack himself.

"We were ACTING UNDER ORDERS from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Lee said in a confession just before his execution by a firing squad. "The horrid deeds then committed were done as a duty which we believed we owed to God and our Church."

This carefully documented book also explores how today's Mormon church has refused to acknowledge Young's culpability, and in an affecting grace note it commends Stewart Udall, former Utah congressman, U.S. interior secretary and great-grandson of John Doyle Lee. In 1999 Udall brought together descendants of both the emigrants and the participants in the slaughter in what he called "a ceremony of atonement" to dedicate a monument on the site.

History plagues the Mormons in other ways, especially the offshoots of the church that still practice polygamy. "I am the daughter of my father's fourth plural wife, twenty-eighth of forty-eight children--a middle kid, you might say, with the middle kid's propensity for identity crisis," begins Dorothy Allred Solomon's Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk.

She comes from a sect of Mormon fundamentalists very much like those who snatched Elizabeth Smart earlier this year. Solomon tells not only a vivid story of sexism and violence but also offers a balanced chronicle of a mostly loving extended family of seven mothers ("sister-wives") in a comfortable compound on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.

They may have cherished and respected one another, but they also lived in constant fear of exposure. "For the most part," she writes, "we were shy, gentle creatures who kept to ourselves, ruminants chewing on our private theology, who dealt with aggression by freezing or running."

After a series of FBI raids in the 1950s, Solomon's physician-preacher father, Rulon Allred, was sentenced to prison. His family was scattered to Mexico, Las Vegas and Montana. In 1977 he was shot to death by members of a rival sect of polygamists.

Eventually Solomon grew tired of lying about who she was, left the sect and made a monogamous marriage. This book is an act of psychological catharsis, but it is also a history of an outlaw phenomenon and a chronicle of a huge extended family. Sometimes the weight of detail can slow down the reading, but over-all it is a remarkable testament.

The people Solomon tells us about are not hairy, wild-eyed monsters but fully fleshed, sometimes obstinate, often admirable human beings caught in the grip of religious absolutism. She shows brilliantly how we can loathe what they believe but also hope for their eventual enlightenment.

So far there has been no official church reaction to the Denton and Solomon books, but they are just as tough-minded and well-grounded as Krakauer's.

Article Published: Sunday, July 13, 2003 - 12:00:00 AM MST

The cult of polygamy
Although there's too much rehash of Mormon history, Jon Krakauer's new book makes compelling points about family concept
By Sandra Dallas

Sunday, July 13, 2003 - Several years ago, I interviewed a woman in Salt Lake City who had been a polygamous wife; she and her sister were married to the same man. The woman and her many children had lived in near poverty, subsisting mostly on welfare. She had few friends, since her marriage was a secret and her husband wanted to isolate her. She wasn't even very close to him. "I was sleeping with my sister's husband. I was damned if I was going to fall in love with him," said the woman, who finally "escaped" from polygamy, as she put it, a few years earlier.

As the interview ended, she told me that she'd attended East High School in Salt Lake. That was the school I'd gone to, and when she told me her age, I realized that we had been in the same graduating class, might even had known each other. While I had gone on to college and a conventional life, my classmate had slipped into an underworld of religious zealotry, physical and sexual abuse and incest. Polygamy is about the subjugation of women. One plural wife told me her husband had admonished her, "You will not express your opinion if it differs from my own."

In "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," Jon Krakauer, best known for "Into Thin Air," tackles the subject of modern-day polygamy. Most Americans think of polygamy as either an unusual but relatively harmless religious practice between consenting adults or a cult-like religion whose members engage in abuse and murder. Krakauer writes about the latter, concentrating on the Lafferty family near Provo, Utah. There were no more violent polygamists anywhere than the Lafferty brothers.

Twenty years ago, Ron Lafferty, the oldest of five brothers and the one most given to communicating with God, had a revelation that he was to kill his brother Allen's wife and baby. The sister-in-law had done him wrong by persuading his wife to leave Ron. That was after he physically abused her and took a second wife. Ron and another brother, Dan, carried out the revelation, beating, then murdering the sister-in-law and her young daughter. Both men are in prison in Utah, and neither has repented. Krakauer tells just how they began as mainstream Mormons, then veered off into their narcissistic world of religious fundamentalism.

Krakauer uses the story of the Laffertys as an entree into the world of polygamy in Utah and its neighboring states. There are freelance polygamists, such as Tom Green, who recently was convicted of raping a minor because he'd married an underage girl. Another is Brian David Mitchell, the self-named Immanuel, charged with kidnapping Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake last year. Krakauer claims Elizabeth was forced to marry Immanuel in a weird ceremony performed by Immanuel and his wife soon after the girl was taken. Then Immanuel allegedly raped her.

Most polygamists, however, are part of communities, such as Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border. These enclaves are ruled over by sometimes violent, sometimes benevolent elders who say they get their orders from God. Obedience is the path to heaven.

Young girls are told whom to marry, and if they refuse, they are threatened with hell - as are their families. That's heavy stuff for someone barely past puberty. With huge polygamous families intermarrying, women marry stepfathers and half-brothers. Some marry their own fathers. Rape is common.

Fiercely conservative, polygamists see governments as satanic forces. Many refuse to pay taxes or even to obey speed limits. But they exist on the dole. Men legally marry just one woman so that they can't be prosecuted for polygamy. The others are "spiritual wives," which in the eyes of the law means they're unwed mothers, thus eligible for welfare. Utah spends millions every year taking care of these anti-government freeloaders.

The polygamists also oppose the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which once embraced polygamy and from which these fundamentalist cults spring. But in the 1890s, Utah wanted to become a state, and it wasn't likely to be admitted to the union if polygamy was legal. So the head of the LDS church had a revelation that God wanted Mormons to discontinue plural marriage, and Utah became a state (the only one that forbids polygamy in its constitution, by the way). Any Mormon with more than one wife today is excommunicated. Fundamentalists preach that the revelation outlawing polygamy was false, and many of them, including Ron Lafferty, believe they've been chosen to re-establish the true church - and soon. Armageddon is coming any day now.

Polygamy - along with some of the church's darker history, which Krakauer includes - is still such a touchy subject among Mormons that an LDS official is sending book editors a lengthy e-mail refuting "Under the Banner of Heaven." Krakauer responded in kind. (See related story on Page 1EE.)

While "Under the Banner of Heaven" is an expose of Utah polygamy, it's a narrowly focused work, concentrating on the most egregious examples of plural marriage. So in some ways, the book is disappointing. There's no mention of Tapestry Against Polygamy, the group that rescues women and children from polygamy, not many interviews with women talking about their everyday lives as plural wives. Readers might want more details and less sensationalism.

And while some background on Mormonism is necessary to understand contemporary polygamy, too much of the book is a rehash of Mormon doctrine and history.

Still, "Under the Banner of Heaven" is a compelling look into the abyss of polygamy. After reading it, you'll understand why polygamy shouldn't be protected under the concept of religious freedom.

Sandra Dallas is a Denver-based novelist who also writes a monthly regional nonfiction column for The Post. She worked for Business Week magazine for 25 years, covering the mountain states and reporting on such subjects as contemporary polygamy in Utah.


Statement from Jon Krakauer

 At the end of June, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints issued an official "response" to my new book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Disseminated nationwide more than two weeks before my book was scheduled to appear on bookstore shelves, this preemptive attack was authored by Richard E. Turley, Jr., a high-ranking church official who serves as managing director of the LDS Family and Church History Department. In his lengthy, carefully worded screed, Elder Turley characterized Under the Banner of Heaven as "a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history." According to his assessment, my book was written as "a condemnation of religion generally," and the Mormon faith in particular.

It saddens me that Elder Turley, speaking for the LDS leadership (and by extension for the church as a whole), elected to regard my book in such a reductionist light. Other reviewers have assessed Under the Banner of Heaven quite differently. As critic Edward Morris wrote in the July issue of BOOKPAGE, "Raised among Mormons he greatly admired, Krakauer treats their religion-in all its theological shades-quite seriously. There's never a snide remark or sarcastic aside. But the studiously balanced reporting can't soften the savagery of the [Lafferty murders]."

In fact it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires some understanding of LDS history, along with an understanding of the complex and highly fluid teachings of the religion's remarkable founder, Joseph Smith. The life of Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course. And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership's profound unhappiness with my book.

The leaders of the modern LDS Church deem the history of their religion to be sacred, and have long endeavored to retain tight proprietary control over how that history is presented to the world. Indeed, LDS leaders have explicitly stated that they believe accounts of Mormon history should be, above all else, "faith promoting"-that is to say, accounts of Mormon history should be celebratory rather than critical, and should downplay, omit, or deny sensitive or unsavory aspects of that history. As Apostle Boyd Packer (presently second in line to become LDS President and Prophet) declared in a notorious 1981 speech, "There is a temptation... to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.... In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary... . In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it." That war is for the minds and souls of the earth's human population-a war that Latter-day Saints wage with all the resources at their disposal.

Dissent from official church teachings is not tolerated in the LDS faith. Because of this obsession to rigidly control how the Mormon past is interpreted and presented, histories sanctioned by the LDS Church tend to be exceedingly partisan and notably incomplete. For example, in 1997 the church released a manual (published in 22 languages, and designated as required reading for virtually every Mormon adult) titled the Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, in which this great Mormon leader was intentionally portrayed as being monogamous-despite the fact that few scholars, Mormon or otherwise, would dispute that Young actually was married to at least twenty women, and was probably married to more than fifty. Even a cursory survey of other LDS sanctioned publications will reveal a similarly disturbing sanitization of the historical record.

According to the eminent Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn, "The tragic reality is that there have been occasions when Church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past, but have offered to the Saints instead a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials." As I wrote in Under the Banner of Heaven, Dr. Quinn argued that a "so-called 'faith-promoting' Church history which conceals controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past actually undermines the faith of Latter-day Saints who eventually learn about the problems from other sources. One of the most painful demonstrations of that fact has been the continued spread of unauthorized polygamy among the Latter-day Saints during the last seventy-five years, despite the concerted efforts of Church leaders to stop it." Quinn pointed out that after officially renouncing the doctrine of plural marriage in 1890, the highest leaders in fact continued to sanction polygamy, covertly, for many years. And this casuistry, he insisted, has driven many Mormons into the embrace of fundamentalism.

"The central argument of the enemies of the LDS Church," Quinn said, "is historical, and if we seek to build the Kingdom of God by ignoring or denying the problem areas of our past, we are leaving the Saints unprotected." For his part, Quinn possesses what he describes as 'a complex testimony.' As he explains, "Instead of a black/white view of Mormonism, I have an Old Testament sort of faith. The writers of the Old Testament presented the prophets as very human vessels, warts and all. Yet God still chose them to be His leaders on earth. That's how I see Mormonism: It is not a perfect church. It has huge flaws, in both the institution and the people who lead it. They are only human. And I have no trouble accepting that. It's all part of my faith.

"On the very first page of The Book of Mormon," Quinn continues, "Joseph Smith wrote that if it contained mistakes or faults, 'it be the mistakes of men.' And this same thing is stated in various ways throughout the text that follows-that errors in this sacred book are possible, even likely. I have always believed that Mormonism was the one true church, but I don't think it has ever been infallible. And I certainly don't believe it has a monopoly on the truth."

I happen to share Dr. Quinn's perspective. The LDS Church aggressively asserts that it is mankind's "one true church," and currently has more than 60,000 missionaries roaming the globe, intent on converting the world to the teachings of Joseph Smith. It seems to me that if Mormons are willing to make such a strong assertion-if Mormons aspire to convince non-believers that their religion is more valid than other faiths, and that the doctrines of Joseph Smith are truly handed down from God-Mormons should be equally willing to open the archives of the LDS Church to all interested parties, and to actively encourage a vigorous, unfettered examination of the church's rich and fascinating past.

I am therefore disappointed that the men who direct the LDS Church and its twelve million members adamantly believe otherwise. I am disappointed that they continue to do everything in their considerable power to keep important aspects of the church's past hidden in the shadows. And I am especially disappointed that they feel such an urgent need to attack writers, like me, who present balanced, carefully researched accounts of Mormon history that happen to diverge from the official, highly expurgated church version.

Jon Krakauer
July 3, 2003





Krakauer Tackles Spiritual Extremes
SALT LAKE CITY, July 11, 2003

Best-selling author Jon Krakauer has built a reputation on gripping portrayals of those who push their physical limits. Now the writer has set his sights on spiritual extremes, and his upcoming book is already creating headaches for the image-conscious Mormon Church.

"Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," looks at the dangers of religious extremism through those who claim to follow the original teachings of the Mormon church, notably the tenet of polygamy.

These Mormon breakaways, who often call themselves fundamentalists, still practice polygamy - even though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abandoned the practice in 1890 and works to distance itself from the subject.

Krakauer, who declined to be interviewed, is best known for "Into Thin Air," his firsthand account of a doomed expedition on Mount Everest. That book, along with his earlier "Into the Wild," were national best sellers.

In "Under the Banner of Heaven," Krakauer turns his attention to the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in rural Utah at the hands of Brenda's fundamentalist brothers-in-law.

The author uses those deaths as to argue that, because of Mormon inconsistencies and silences about the dark corners of the faith's past, the LDS church has been unable to break free from embarrassing and sometimes tragic episodes.

The church has been forceful in rebuking Krakauer's book. Spokesman Michael Otterson called the writer's attempt to link religious zealots with Mormon history and doctrine "a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern church."

The slayings were committed by Dan and Ron Lafferty, who slit their victims' throats and later claimed God had ordered the slayings. Dan Lafferty is serving a life sentence and Ron Lafferty, who claimed to have the revelation to kill, is on death row.

With Dan Lafferty as a main source, Krakauer writes that the brothers decided to practice polygamy and committed the killings because Brenda opposed them.

Krakauer tries to add a larger context to the killings and their alleged connection to Mormon fundamentalism by examining the secretive communities of polygamists, those who have given up the practice and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case. Alleged abductor Brian David Mitchell claims God told him to take Elizabeth as a "sister wife."

Krakauer's "basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things," Otterson said. "He does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes."

The Mormon church has nothing to do with fundamentalists, church officials say. It excommunicates those who advocate plural marriage. Still, zealots such as Lafferty and Mitchell tarnish the church's image, and polygamy remains inextricably linked to the church's early decades.

Publishing house Doubleday has printed 350,000 copies of "Under the Banner of Heaven" so far, though the LDS church-owned Deseret Book chain won't stock it.

Krakauer's language in the book is pointed: "Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle - they try to keep the 'polygs' hidden in the attic, safely out of sight, but the fundamentalists always seem to be sneaking out to appear in public at inopportune moments to create unsavory scenes, embarrassing the entire LDS clan."

Church historian Richard Turley said Krakauer has taken a sensational approach to the faith's history.

"Ostensibly focused on murders committed by brothers who had been excommunicated from the church, Krakauer's book is actually a condemnation of religion generally," Turley wrote in a review.

Krakauer shot back in an equally blunt written statement, accusing the church of continuing to distort its past.

"I am especially disappointed," he wrote, "that they feel such an urgent need to attack writers, like me, who present balanced, carefully researched accounts of Mormon history that happen to diverge from the official, highly expurgated church version."

Murderous events in Mormon history

"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)

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By John Freeman

Attempting to explain why he adores music over religion, the narrator of James Wood's recent "Book Against God," replies, "Music, when I last looked, has not caused centuries of wars."

In the past decade, some of the world's most prescient historians have turned their attention to this uncomfortable fact, from James Carroll to Bernard Lewis, seeking to understand why religion has fostered, underwritten and endorsed so much bloodshed. This summer, America's most successful homegrown religion, Mormonism, goes under the microscope as two respected journalists, Sally Denton and Jon Krakauer, 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 continued attempts to distance itself from its shadowy past.

Denton's book re-creates the event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when about 130 peaceful Arkansas farmers traveling through Utah territory were slaughtered by Mormon settlers.

Although this event has been told and retold throughout the years, most recently in Judith Freeman's superb novel, "Red Water," Denton's version has much to offer, as it recasts the history of the Mormon faith through the lens of the event.

Violence, she argues, was there from the beginning. Relying on journals, historical documents and scores of newspaper archives, she painstakingly conjures the cult of personality that founder Joseph Smith developed after he published "The Book of Mormon" and began attracting followers.

Even before Mormons were heavily persecuted, driven farther west by angry mobs who loathed their faith and, more importantly, resented them for their financial dominance, there was a military-like air to the church.

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

Like many military leaders who rise to power, Smith -- and then his successor, Brigham Young -- often ruled with an iron fist, and as Denton depicts it, used their flock's persecution and paranoia to their advantage, especially when the controversial practice of polygamy was instituted.

As internal strife grew, Denton writes, Smith continuously sought and 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 at one time amassed an army one-quarter the size of that marshaled by the entire United States.

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, Brigham Young's second in command, "believed passionately" in blood atonement, writes Denton. "The killing of [non-Mormons] was considered a means of grace and virtuous deed," he once wrote.

Young was aware of this belief and used it to his advantage -- just as he often hid behind other murders carried out by Mormons, most notably, of a government surveyor by the name of John Gunnison -- by blaming them on nearby Indian tribes.

Whatever role Young played in the carnage, Lee took the fall for the Mountain Meadows massacre, which Denton re-creates here in grim, numbing detail. Although Denton makes the case that Lee felt he was under direct orders from Young to attack the wagon train, we will never truly know how he could carry out such orders.

His journals do let us know, however, that he deeply regretted it and felt led terribly astray by his faith. 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."

Krakauer offers a slightly more sympathetic version of this history and the myths that surround it, if that's at all possible, in "Under the Banner of Heaven," which centers on two murders on July 24, 1984.

Fundamentalist Mormons Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, because they believe 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 fascinating glimpse of 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 federal government.

Although there are some familiar elements to this story -- Ron Lafferty was rejected by his wife, on the fringe of his community -- what's truly eerie is the way his obedience to a revelation mirrors that of John Doyle Lee to Brigham Young.

Lafferty claimed 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, the Laffertys turned to "The Book of Mormon" and found their fateful charge to overcome their fears there.

"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."

Ironically, because the Lafferty brothers followed the word of this scripture to a T, and because Jon Krakauer has brought these events to an even wider audience, the Mormon faith might face its most difficult hour yet.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.



Mormon trail of extremes

By Steve Galpern, Special To The News
July 11, 2003

Jon Krakauer has changed horses in the middle of the stream.

Not because the best-selling author of Into Thin Air has switched topics from extreme outdoor adventures to the nature of faith and religion. Rather, he is straddling saddles because he shifted the focus of his new book from the broad question of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) deals with its past to the more narrow, and less critical one, of what motivates America's 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy.

Krakauer admits in the "author's remarks" of his new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, A Story of Violent Faith, that he originally set out to write about a different topic, "the uneasy, highly charged relationship between the LDS Church and its past."

Instead, he tells the story of the 1984 murders by fundamentalist Mormon brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty, who believed that they were following a divine revelation to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica.

Dan and Ron Lafferty were two of five brothers born into a conservative Mormon family. Dan was the first to move into a more extreme version of the religion that promotes polygamy. His brothers eventually followed his lead, including Ron, who became the leader of the group.

The real trouble began when Ron told his wife that he wanted their teenage daughters to become other men's plural wives. Fearful, she took the children and left, with the help of her sister-in-law, Brenda. Brenda, married to Allen, had been the only wife to take a stand against the brothers' increasing fundamentalism.

Despondent over the loss of his family, Ron slipped deeper into extremism. Along with the other brothers, he joined a group called "The School of the Prophets," who studied to receive divine revelations. After receiving 20 messages, some of which he typed out on a computer as he felt the hand of God commanding him, he received a message to kill Brenda and Erica and two other people in the community who had helped his wife.

In a passage that will turn readers' stomachs, Krakauer describes the crime in excruciating detail. He writes of the violent struggle as the brothers entered the house and Dan used a butcher's knife to cut his victims' throats.

As gruesome as the Lafferty murders were, they aren't enough to carry an entire book, and the author spends a great deal of time profiling fundamentalist Mormons, the communities in which they live, and the origins of the LDS faith from which they believe the current church has strayed.

Intertwined among chapters about the Laffertys, he writes about well-known polygamists such as Tom Green, recently prosecuted by the State of Utah for welfare fraud after appearing on Dateline to advocate for "plural marriage," and Brian David Mitchell, kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart.

The author also chronicles the lesser-known world of Colorado City, Utah, a fundamentalist Mormon stronghold, which until recently was controlled by "Uncle Rulon (Jeffs) who . . . three months shy of his ninety-third birthday when he passed on, left behind an estimated seventy-five bereft wives and at least sixty-five children."

Krakauer paints a disturbing picture of Mormon fundamentalists, chronicling a trail of sexual and physical abuse, plural wives who are sometimes married as young as 13 and dictatorial religious leaders who control every economic, political and social dimension of the lives of the members of their flocks.

According to Under the Banner of Heaven, "life in Colorado City under Rulon Jeffs bears more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban."

Krakauer's straightforward style and excellent storytelling ability make the book interesting, but not as interesting as the one that he didn't write.

The problem is that it isn't clear which part of the book is the dog and which is the tail. He spends as much or more ink describing fundamentalist Mormonism as he does on the Laffertys. Does Colorado City explain the Lafferty brothers (who lived in a different part of the state) or do the Lafferty brothers explain Colorado City?

Krakauer hints at the more interesting question when he discusses the history of Mormonism, from its origins in upstate New York in the 1830s to the controversy over polygamy and its subsequent rejection by the mainstream church in the 1920s.

For non-Mormon readers, this may be the first time that they learn about Joseph Smith Jr. who founded the religion after receiving a revelation from the angel Moroni in 1823 that 1,400 year-old gold plates were buried under a hill near his Palmyra, N.Y., home.

According to Krakauer, the plates, which Smith transcribed into the Book of Mormon, told the story of how "Jesus Christ pays a special visit to the New World immediately after His resurrection to tell his chosen people - residents of what would become America - the good news," that "the Son of Man will be making His glorious arrival in that same corner of America."

Krakauer points out that "those who would assail the Book of Mormon should bear in mind that its veracity is no more dubious than the veracity of the Bible, say, or the Quran, or the sacred texts of most other religions." (In other words, what is the difference between believing that Jesus appeared on the North American continent or that God parted the Red Sea?)

The real distinction between the Book of Mormon and its ancient predecessors, however, is the time period during which the LDS church was born.

The author notes ". . . the utterly unique circumstances in which their religion was born: the Mormon Church was founded a mere 173 years ago, in a literate society, in the age of the printing press. As a consequence, the creation of what became a worldwide faith was abundantly documented in firsthand accounts."

On the one hand, this means that unlike the followers of the ancient religions, it is possible to learn a great deal about the lives and motivations of Mormonism's early adherents.

On the other hand, it also means that there is ample documentation about the darker sides of the faith's early years, from polygamy to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, in which more than 100 non-Mormon members of a wagon train were murdered on their way through Utah.

Anyone can be an extremist. Add a couple of fanatics and you have a fundamentalist movement. But the real trick is converting millions in the shadow of the industrial and subsequent technological revolutions into a movement that resembles the ancient religions and yet continues to grow into the 21st century.

We can only hope that Krakauer writes his original book sometime in the future.

Steve Galpern is a freelance writer living in Denver.




Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
By Jon Krakauer Doubleday, 372 pp., $26

Posted 7/14/2003 1:49 PM

Murder by zealot Mormon sect sparks deeper look

By Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY 

Jon Krakauer's new title, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, probably will ignite a firestorm of angry rebuttals from Mormons when it arrives in stores Tuesday. They will see the well-researched and evenhanded book as an attack on their lifestyle and profound faith.

Heaven uses the murder of a young Mormon wife, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old daughter in 1984 as a launchpad to probe the roots of all religious faith and the extremes to which it can be taken. Lafferty and her child were killed by her brothers-in-law in revenge because she resisted their fanatic faith, a renegade form of Mormonism not sanctioned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This included a terrifying level of wifely submission.

In the hands of a less perceptive writer, the book would be just another lurid true-crime tale with superficial religious overtones. Instead, Krakauer, best known for writing Into Thin Air, a first-person account of the deaths of eight climbers on Mount Everest in 1996, presents events in historical context. The murders stem from Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith's advocacy of polygamy and personal messages from God. Krakauer also explores the often blood-soaked roots of the Mormon faith.

Though Under the Banner of Heaven touches on the history of the church, it is a far more compelling examination of religious fanaticism. Moreover, Krakauer does not present himself as an expert on Mormonism, which the book says is the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere.

In describing modern polygamous communities in the USA, Canada and Mexico, Krakauer does not dwell on the salacious concept of multiple wives but presents the limitations that polygamy imposes on girls married in their teens. With no education or employment skills and usually with a brood of children in tow, these women have very few options.

And there is the impressive aspect of Krakauer's open-mindedness. He gives credit to the energy, compassion and community spirit that religious faith gives its followers, but he raises crucial questions about the agony inflicted by those who claim to act in God's name. Thought-provoking stuff for both thinking believers and avowed atheists.


Violence under banner of religion

Author probes extreme fringe outside modern Mormonism

July 15 —  Her story gripped the nation for the better part of a year, but after Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart was found in March, relief quickly gave way to disturbing questions about her alleged kidnappers. Who are Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee? And what might their motives have been for taking Elizabeth? The answers, it turns out, may lie in a dark chapter of Utah’s unique history, in a strange place where religion can sometimes give way to fanaticism. According to an explosive new book, it’s a place where, in the name of God, some have felt the compulsion to commit the most ungodly acts.

WHEN ELIZABETH SMART was suddenly rescued after an absence of nine months, there was great relief. But when word came that Smart’s accused kidnapper was once a Mormon, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, one prison inmate says he knew instantly the motivation for the crime.
       Dan Lafferty: “I immediately said to myself, polygamy is involved. I just saw the scenario that actually unfolded in the next few days.”
       How could Lafferty so quickly guess details that would only later be revealed to the public? Because Lafferty, like accused kidnapper Brian David Mitchell, is an excommunicated Mormon. Like Mitchell, Lafferty believes in polygamy, and that he receives revelations from God. Only, the message that Lafferty and his brother Ron acted on almost 20 years ago led not to a kidnapping —but to a double murder.
       Tom Brokaw: “You freely admit that you killed, in cold-blooded fashion, your sister-in-law and her infant child, Brenda and Erica.”
       Lafferty: [nods]
       Brokaw: “You still feel no remorse for that crime?”
       Lafferty: “I don’t think that I would. I wouldn’t want to offend God by being remorseful.”

The claim of the Lafferty brothers that they were directed by God’s will to commit these heinous murders is a special problem in Utah. One of the fundamental tenets of the Mormon church is that God does speak directly to individual members of the faith. A disturbing number of crimes in Utah have been committed using that claim — that it was “God’s will.”
       Jon Krakauer: “Common sense is no match for the voice of God.”
       Best-selling author Jon Krakauer has written a book called “Under the Banner of Heaven: a Story of Violent Faith.” Krakauer has spent more than four years researching the roots of the Mormon faith, and the beliefs of those former Mormons known as Fundamentalists, who advocate a return to polygamy as a true teaching of the Church, and are willing to commit violence.
       Brokaw: “You’ve been working on this story for a long time. What got you interested in it in the first place?”
       Krakauer: “I grew up in a small town in Oregon among Mormons. They were my playmates, my teachers. And my own family was for all intents and purposes, atheists, but I was baffled by their certainty, I mean the strength of their belief. Nothing could shake it. And once I started investigating Mormonism I came across something that I knew nothing about, that out in the West there’s maybe as many as 100,000 of these polygamists whom the Mormons don’t consider Mormons at all. So I started looking into it, and one thing led to another, and before long I crossed paths with Dan Lafferty.
       Dan Lafferty and his brother are among the unsettling number of former Mormons, fundamentalists whose crimes have made headlines.
       In the 1970s, Ervil LeBaron, who believed that he was a prophet sent by God, directed his followers to murder rival polygamists, eventually killing more than 20 people. In 1979, polygamist John Singer refused to send his children to public school.

   Singer was killed in a shootout with police. And a decade later, Singer’s son-in-law claimed God directed him to blow up a Mormon church building. Addam Swapp did just that, and held off police for 13 days. The standoff ended in a burst of gunfire that left Swapp wounded and a law enforcement officer dead.
       Krakauer: “This violent tradition this culture of violence pervades the movement. You see it time and time again, these eruptions of fundamentalists, spilling blood in some very dramatic and upsetting ways.”
       But few of these “violent believers” have ever spoken so openly about their faith or their crimes as Dan Lafferty. In the early 1980s, he was a respected chiropractor who ran for county sheriff. His brother was once a star athlete, and city councilman. Then they began to read and believe in the early teachings of Mormonism, which included polygamy. The Mormon Church, which officially renounced polygamy more than 100 ago, expelled the Laffertys.
       Lafferty: “I was excommunicated from the church basically, the wording that was used, conduct unbecoming a member of the church.”
       Brokaw: “What did your parents say to you during that time?”
       Lafferty: “Well, my father thought I’d gone insane.”

 The change in the brothers was too much for some family members. Divorce and disputes followed. One sister-in-law particularly enraged the brothers. That was 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty, an aspiring television journalist who led a mainstream Mormon life. Dan’s brother claimed the Lord commanded that Brenda and her 15-month-old daughter Erica needed to be “removed from the earth” because they stood in the way of God’s work.
       Krakauer: “They pondered this intensely. And Dan decided it was true and it must be carried out. because when God tells you to do something, if you’re a true believer, you don’t ignore that lightly. I mean, you do what God says.”
       Lafferty: “I didn’t want to offend God by being afraid. The day of the 24th of July we went to my brothers apartment with the intention of fulfilling the revelation.”
       July 24th, 1984, was Pioneer Day, which commemorates the arrival of the Mormons in Utah. On that day, one of Utah’s most significant holidays, the Lafferty brothers drove to the town of American Fork to confront Brenda.
       Lafferty: “I got out of the car, I went to the door, and the first knock the door opened.”
       Inside, as his brother Ron watched, Dan Lafferty says he cut the throat of Brenda as well as his young niece. Two weeks later the Lafferty brothers were captured. Convicted of murder, Dan received a prison sentence of life. But Ron was sentenced to die. He remains on death row for two murders many have struggled to understand.
       Brokaw: “Do you think it’s possible that you were driven to kill her because she stood up to you and your brother? Because she was articulate and intelligent and would not succumb to what was going on within the family and other members of the family?”
       Lafferty: “In my heart and mind, no. Since I’ve been in prison I was willing to consider with God that I may have been wrong. And if God would let me know that I was wrong I would be happy to do anything I could to try to make things right with God.”
       Brokaw: “But in your judgement you have received no sign from God that you could have been wrong?”
       Lafferty: “That’s correct. That’s correct.”
       After 19 years in prison, Dan Lafferty believes that he is the prophet Elijah, who will herald the second coming of Christ. But has it occurred to Lafferty that he has a great deal in common with a well known Islamic fundamentalist?
       Brokaw: “What about Osama bin Laden? What separates him from you?”
       Lafferty: “Him from me? Well, for the observer probably little or nothing.”
       Krakauer: “Dan Lafferty and Osama bin Laden are cut from the same cloth. They’re both these fanatical believers who let nothing get in the way of carrying out what they believe is God’s will. Nothing. Not human life, common sense — it all goes out the window.”
       And among Dan Lafferty’s most disturbing beliefs today is this: that there are many more groups of excommunicated Mormons in Utah and elsewhere, ready to commit violence in the name of God.

Lafferty: “I know of a half a dozen different groups who, I think, wouldn’t probably hesitate to take lives in their cause.”
       Brokaw: “You think there are other true believers out there who may take lives?”
       Lafferty: “I’m confident it will probably happen.”
       The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints tells “Dateline” that Fundamentalists who share the Laffertys beliefs have no connection whatsoever to the church. In a statement, the church said the vast majority of Saints are “peace-loving people who” ... “practice their religion in a spirit of non-violence.” The church also calls Krakauer an “agnostic” who has written a book that is a “condemnation of religion,” and a “decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history.”
       Brokaw: “As you know, mainstream Mormons are going to be watching all this and they’re going to be furious.”
       Krakauer: “In some sense I’m kind of surprised. Because in my book I make a very clear distinction between mainstream Mormons and Fundamentalists.”
       But Krakauer believes that another violent chapter in the book of the excommunicated Mormons, the Fundamentalists, is inevitable, although church and state authorities may try to move heaven and earth to stop it.
       Brokaw: “It’s likely that Ron Lafferty will be executed, Dan Lafferty will spend the rest of his days in prison. Does that send any kind of a message to the Fundamentalists out there about consequences for their behavior? Do you think it’ll discourage them in any way?”
       Krakauer: “I think it’s quite the opposite. They’re not afraid of death. Their glory is in the afterlife. When people start listening to God and ignoring common sense the world becomes a much more dangerous place because you can’t argue with the voice of God. There’s no talking sense to someone who says God told me to do it, so that’s it, I have to do it.”



Posted on Sun, Jul. 27, 2003

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN. A Story of Violent Faith. Jon Krakauer. Doubleday. 400 pages. $26.

The alarming link between faith, violence

Faith is by its very nature irrational. If you believe in the virgin birth of Jesus or in the angel Gabriel bringing the Koran to Mohammed in Mecca or in the angel Moroni revealing the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith in Palmyra, N.Y., you believe something that can't be proven in any conventional way.

So what if you sincerely believe God is telling you to kill people? In every religion, some people cross the fine line between belief and fanaticism. Violence committed in the name of God is as old as the pharaohs and as new as Osama bin Laden and David Koresh.

Jon Krakauer's new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, explores one small part of this blood-soaked spectrum: the dark side of Mormonism. This quintessentially American religion is the fastest growing faith in the world today, and it has always had a terrifying substratum of murder, pedophilia and incest.

That ugly legacy is vehemently rejected by the modern Church of Latter Day Saints, which works hard to stamp out its vestiges. But through his effective mix of journalism and history, Krakauer shows that it remains a hardy strain.

The book is something of a new direction for Krakauer, whose bestsellers Into the Wild and Into Thin Air were essentially adventure stories. But they were also stories of obsession, and the schismatics known as Mormon fundamentalists are nothing if not obsessive. They believe that God has ordered them to practice ''plural marriage'' -- polygamy -- whatever the legal or psychic cost.

Krakauer estimates that more than 30,000 polygamists live in areas of southern Utah, British Columbia and northern Mexico. The lifestyle includes ''marriages'' between mature men and young teenage girls, pedophile rape disguised as religion.

Krakauer devotes one chapter to Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old whose kidnapping and rescue galvanized public attention. This was indisputably a case of crazed Mormon fundamentalism. Kidnapper Brian Mitchell believed that God had given Elizabeth to him as his polygamous wife. And Elizabeth, from a mainstream Mormon family, was brainwashed into believing it.

The centerpiece of the book is the tale of Dan and Ron Lafferty, the Utah brothers who cut the throats of their sister-in-law and her baby daughter in 1984 because they believed it was God's will. Brenda Lafferty, 24, had encouraged Ron's wife to leave him when Ron announced that God wanted him to practice plural marriage. According to Ron, God subsequently told him that Brenda and 15-month-old Erica had to die. Dan killed the baby. He also claims to have killed Brenda, but it's unclear whether he or Ron did it.

Ron is on Death Row, likely to be executed next year. Dan got a life sentence, and Krakauer's fascinating interview with him is woven through the book.

The killer turns out to be an interesting, thoughtful guy. Too thoughtful. Through intense reading and discussion with like-minded friends, he came to believe that the most extreme ideas taught by the early Mormon fathers were God's revealed truth. He has changed his mind somewhat in prison, but he still is completely convinced that God told him to commit the murders.

Dan and Ron are criminal zealots. But as the book demonstrates, they have any number of predecessors among the pioneer Mormons. Most notable were the men who committed the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, killing 120 non-Mormons in a wagon train.

However, Krakauer also introduces us to a positive contrast: Deloy Bateman, from Colorado City, Utah. Bateman, a high school science teacher, was an upstanding fundamentalist, with two wives and 17 kids. A clash with the community's leader (with 45 wives, 65 children) began the intellectual journey that led to his break with the sect.

Bateman is inspirational, but he's one individual, and Krakauer offers no overall solution to the problem of what he calls ''faith-based violence.'' There probably isn't one. Instead, Krakauer explains, and he alarms. And we need to be alarmed.

Anne Bartlett is The Herald's Miami-Dade politics and government editor.



Book about murder explores 'dark side' of religious devotion


Steve Weinberg
Special to The Plain Dealer

Jon Krakauer is a name-brand non fiction author because of "Into the Wild" and "Into Thin Air," outdoor adventure books written with narrative drive.

His new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven," is a departure. There is adventure, to be sure. Some of it is of the murderous kind, as two brothers in small-town Utah execute their sister-in-law and her baby. The rest of the adventure is of a philosophical nature.

Krakauer wants to understand the context in which the extraordinary murder occurred, and he places the case in the context of the violence that can flow from deep religious belief. Specifically, from some members of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Dan and Ron Lafferty were two of eight children in a Mormon family. Their victim was 24-year-old Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. Brenda had married Allen Lafferty, the youngest of six brothers. She loved Allen and respected modern Mormon teachings, but she loathed fundamentalist offshoots such as the kind being practiced by her brothers-in-law circa 1984.

Ron and Dan had turned into misogynists who were openly discussing participating in the Mormon practice of polygamy. Brenda, with a college education, was openly opposing misogyny and polygamy in her marriage. As Krakauer writes it, Ron and Dan hated such courage and common sense.

He explains in his prologue that there is "a dark side to religious devotion." Islamic fundamentalism played a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, so that comes to mind quickly. But humans "have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since mankind began believing in deities, and extremists exist within all religions," he writes.

Krakauer makes it clear that he is not singling out Mormonism as uniquely violent. Many Mormons will think otherwise. In his research into the faith founded in 1830, he turns up copious amounts of violence tinged with sexism. Polygamy, which some Mormon men characterize as God's will, comes across in Krakauer's book as sexual exploitation, incest and rape. If Mormons tend to be unforgiving of those practicing other faiths, Krakauer tends to be unforgiving of the Mormon faith.

To be sure, Mormons of various persuasions have their say in these pages, especially Dan Lafferty, who cooperates with Krakauer from behind prison walls.

Dan Lafferty is violent, he is fanatical, he is without remorse. Yet, he has plenty of intellectual power. Krakauer makes somebody who at first seems like a one-dimensional monster downright interesting.

Krakauer is also masterful at connecting the tenets of Mormonism to other religions and to numerous societal issues that touch all faiths. For example, in recounting the courtroom tribulations of Ron Lafferty, Krakauer explores the meaning of an insanity defense: "If Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isn't everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well? In a democratic republic that aspires to protect religious freedom, who should have the right to declare that one person's irrational beliefs are legitimate and commendable, while another person's are crazy? How can a society actively promote religious faith on one hand and condemn a man for zealously adhering to his faith on the other?"

After all, Krakauer notes, the current U.S. government is "led by a born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, who believes he is an instrument of God and characterizes international relations as a biblical clash between forces of good and evil."

Federal prosecutors, Krakauer continues, must answer to Attorney General John Ashcroft, "a dyed-in-the-wool follower of a fundamentalist Christian sect, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, who begins each day at the Justice Department with a devotional prayer meeting for his staff, periodically has himself anointed with sacred oil, and subscribes to a vividly apocalyptic world view that has much in common with key millenarian beliefs held by the Lafferty brothers." An author who can start with one murder case and lead readers outward in so many productive directions deserves a reading. "Under the Banner of Heaven" is always thought-provoking. Sometimes chillingly so.

Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and in Columbia, Mo.


Sunday, July 20, 2003 12:00AM EDT

God's country
Did religion push two brothers to commit murder in the Mormon promised land?

By GIL TROY, Correspondent

The United States is the Ireland of North America, filled with more God-fearing and churchgoing people than any other Western democracy. Yet America remains a bastion of unbelief, a secular Sodom seducing the pious, mocking the faithful and banishing religion from the public square. As a result, many secular Europeans and American liberals detest George Bush's America as a stronghold of fanatic Christian fundamentalism, even as too many Islamic terrorists and American conservatives condemn modern America as a godless moral cesspool.
Jon Krakauer, the author who guided millions of readers through the extreme world of adventure in his gripping best seller about climbing Mount Everest, "Into Thin Air," has selected an intriguing vehicle for addressing haunting questions about "the nature of faith" in America. On July 24, 1984, two brothers from Utah murdered their sister-in-law and baby niece in a ritual killing. Ron and Dan Lafferty said they were acting on a "revelation" the older brother, Ron, "received" after his strong-willed sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty encouraged his wife to divorce him rather than accept new "wives" into the household. Nearly a millennium after the Crusades and a decade before Osama bin Laden's mass slaughter, these two Mormon Fundamentalists believed they were doing God's work in killing for polygamy.

A superb storyteller, Krakauer uses this tale to discuss Mormon history and theology and to explore the lure of religious fundamentalism in modern American life. Breezy, smooth and vigorously written, this ambitious book is entertaining and informative. Unfortunately, the vividness of the stories and the fluid prose cannot compensate for a stunningly superficial analysis that tells more about the author's prejudices than about religion or human nature.

Krakauer's work is strongest when he sticks to the narrative, including his discussion of Mormon origins and beliefs. Contrary to the complaints already emanating from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City, Krakauer's account of the start of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is accurate. His handling of the Mormons' slaughter of 120 Arkansans going west on a wagon train is balanced -- and parallels the interpretation in Sally Denton's new book "American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857" (Knopf). Krakauer reconstructs the Lafferty brothers' descent into fatal fanaticism magnificently, interweaving their story throughout the book and giving this wide-ranging work narrative coherence and emotional resonance.

This "story of violent faith" falters, however, in connecting the dots. Krakauer is least effective in explaining the broader meaning of the episodes he explores, be it the ritual murder of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter; the rise of Joseph Smith, the mysterious yet compelling visionary who founded Mormonism in 1830; the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre; or the epidemic of pederasty and polygamy among too many of this book's subjects.

Most Americans are ignorant about the Mormon religion, which boasts 11 million adherents, or "Saints," and is the "fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere." Today, experts view the LDS church as the "quintessential American religion." Yet for the first six decades after its founding in 1830, most Americans abhorred the church as amoral and un-American. The church's approval of polygamy particularly offended 19th-century sensibilities. Joseph Smith married at least 33 women -- probably as many as 48, the youngest age 14 -- before a moralistic anti-Mormon mob killed him in 1844.

In 1857 President James Buchanan dispatched troops out West to fight the church, then headed by Smith's savvy successor Brigham Young. Thirty years after the inconclusive "Utah War," the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 "disincorporated the LDS Church." Finally, in 1890 the church Elders denounced "plural marriage," setting the stage for its vast wealth, regional power, surprising conventionality and growing popularity today.

Mormon Fundamentalists (or FLDS) reject the 1890 ruling as a mere political sop to Satan as embodied by America's government. These Mormon rebels "passionately believe that Saints have a divine obligation to take multiple wives." Today, there are "more than thirty thousand FLDS polygamists living in Canada, Mexico and throughout the American West." These fundamentalists prefer to live in remote, self-sustaining communities, as a way of avoiding legal scrutiny -- although they collect welfare checks and enjoy other government benefits. According to Krakauer, "plural wives" are often mere teenagers, such as Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old kidnapped in Utah last summer. Polygamy appears to be a polite cover for untrammeled, predatory male sexuality.

This ugly mix of polygamy and pederasty illuminates "the roots of brutality" at the heart of most religions, Krakauer believes. A master of guilt by association, and always eager to draw broad conclusions from individual anecdotal evidence, Krakauer implies that the violence of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre reflects Mormonism's true nature, just as the Lafferty clan's insanity and the fundamentalist "polygs'" zealous carnality reflect religion's true nature. "There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied," he preaches. While certainly true -- most ideologies have a "dark side" and can be distorted by extremists -- as a key to understanding faith, "violent" or otherwise, the approach is cliche, predictable and counterproductive.

Krakauer's analysis does not explain how the overwhelming majority of the 11 million Mormons control themselves and lead clean-cut lives. He downplays the Mormon Elders' disdain for the fundamentalist minority, whom the church excommunicated. More broadly, Krakauer's thesis ignores the benefits that faith can yield individually and collectively. Also, it does not account for the depredations of atheist murderers such as Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Tragically, the 20th century proves the lethal potential of both the God-fearing and the godless.

Ultimately, this attempt to overly generalize and moralize from one family's tragic breakdown proves most revealing about the author's assumptions. These days, bigotry against religion and religious people, especially fundamentalists, is one of the last legitimate prejudices of the politically correct. Krakauer indulges those prejudices and overshoots. Linking the Everest climbers and the Mormon fanatics, the book offers a compelling case study of the way the zealot's "immoderation" can lead to "rapture" and how "the territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals." Had Krakauer resisted his own irreligious extremism, this dark, flawed yet nevertheless riveting book would have been more limited in scope yet more penetrating in its insights. As it now stands, this work is most likely to reinforce the beliefs of those Americans who are already so resolute in their disbelief, while failing to sway even those believers who struggle with doubt. Alas, "Under the Banner of Heaven" shows how, on earth, the two sides seem doomed to continue speaking at one another rather than to each other.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.


New Orleans Times-Picayune

New looks at Mormon world

True believers: two new books probe the reality of Mormon fundamentalism

Tuesday July 15, 2003

By Susan Larson

We all are fascinated -- and probably a little frightened -- by people who live by what seem to us to be extreme beliefs, for this is the age when religious fundamentalism is changing the world as we know it. Two new books -- "Under the Banner of Heaven," by Jon Krakauer, and "Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk," by Dorothy Allred Solomon -- provide a glimpse into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, focusing on the secretive world of Mormon fundamentalism. They examine a home-grown American religion, the fastest-growing in the Western Hemisphere, numbering some 11 million faithful, with 60,000 missionaries spreading its word around the world, and an estimated 100 million copies of its sacred "Book of Mormon" in print.

Jon Krakauer, author of the best sellers "Into the Wild" and "Into Thin Air," crafts his tale, 'Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith' () as an interwoven account of true crime and religious history. Krakauer, a well-known chronicler of extreme behavior, is at his provocative best in this story that takes as its starting point the brutal 1984 murder of a young mother, Brenda Lafferty, and her baby daughter by her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty.

Along with his tale of the murder and the events that led up to it, Krakauer recounts the history of the religion, from its founding 173 years ago with a vision delivered to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni, through its western migration from Smith's birthplace in Vermont, first to Haun's Mill, Mo., then to Nauvoo, Ill., and finally, led by leader Smith's successor, Brigham Young, to a stronghold in Utah. Stressing the Mormon belief in the direct personal revelation from God, Krakauer demonstrates how those revelations have occasionally been twisted to suit secular agendas.

He describes the schism within the church over the principle of Plural Marriage, certainly the most highly publicized aspect of Mormonism (except possibly for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), which the establishment church disavowed in 1890, leading to the rise of various polygamist splinter factions, perhaps some 30,000 strong, scattered in settlements in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Krakauer demonstrates how the Lafferty brothers, sons of a promising and well thought of family, made the transition to fundamentalism, to the eventual horror of their wives. Ron Lafferty's wife, Diana, divorced him and moved to Florida. Brenda Lafferty, the murder victim, was resolute in her opposition to their thinking, and eventually the two men received a divine revelation telling them to kill their brother's outspoken wife. Krakauer describes the position of many women in Mormon fundamentalism, from former teenage brides, who find themselves married to men who are really pedophiles, to resisting women who find themselves forced to share their husbands' affections, to passionate converts. He also sheds some light on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, immediately recognized by Dan Lafferty as the work of a Mormon fundamentalist who believed in plural marriage.

And Krakauer describes how fundamentalists are passing along their beliefs to the next generation. One adolescent girl named Emmylou shows him a house she's designed on the Internet according to the Principle, a house with "space to add another room here for a third wife," all this planning for "the life she hopes to live when she grows up."

Krakauer writes with characteristic energy and drive. And if he does seem to sensationalize certain aspects of Mormonism (granted, comparing the annual Hill Cumorah pageant, celebrating Smith's original revelation, to a Phish concert will not endear him to Mormon readers), he does take pains to distinguish between the establishment church and its fundamentalist sects.. This reader, for one, came away with a better understanding.

"Under the Banner of Heaven," which takes its title from an 1880 speech by Mormon leader John Taylor in defense of polygamy, has already engendered a fair amount of controversy, with establishment Mormon leaders speaking out against Krakauer's depiction of their faith. But Krakauer, in his attempt to "grasp the nature of religious belief," shows the light as well as the dark side of their religion. In his afterword, he remembers with affection and respect the Saints he knew as childhood companions in Oregon, and writes that this book sprang from a desire "to comprehend the formidable power of such belief."

If Krakauer's book provides an outsider's view of Mormonism, Dorothy Allred Solomon's "Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy" is an eerily compelling insider's view of what it was like to grow up as the daughter of a committed Mormon leader and a child in a Mormon fundamentalist family. Her father, Rulon C. Allred, paid a high price for his beliefs; in 1977 he was murdered in his office by a woman who said she was acting on behalf of rival fundamentalists.

What about the women in a Plural Marriage? What is the role of women in a church that doesn't allow for female leadership, female will? These are some of the questions that Solomon tackles in her remarkable memoir.

She begins with this unforgettable line: "I am the only daughter of my father's fourth plural wife, twenty-eighth of forty-eight children -- a middle kid you might say, with the middle kid's propensity for identity crisis." Growing up in a complicated, large family, the daughter of a naturopath, a healer who was committed to the Mormon Principle of Plural Marriage, Solomon was often at odds with her strong-willed but adored father, shaped as she was by her reaction to -- and against -- her religious upbringing.

"With seven mothers, I had seven sets of choices about how to be a woman," she writes. Solomon must find her own path through the choices that face her, reacting against her own mother, the more retiring of a pair of twin wives (a common phenomenon in polygamy), moving toward the example of her paternal grandmother, Evelyn. She gives us an inside look at the passions, jealousies and various configurations of lifestyle that can exist within such a large extended family. Finally, she will decide that the polygamous lifestyle is not for her; she will choose her own husband, make her own way.

Part of this is a reaction to being a member of a family that must remain secret. Allred served prison time for polygamy, and often his family was forced to deny the very nature of its existence. But his daughter would find herself unable to keep the secret for her entire life. In a family that is constantly on the run, it is difficult to find a sense of self-worth.

"Without daily access to our beloved Daddy, someone was always scheming to get more love, more attention, more praise," she writes. That said, Solomon loved her father deeply, and struggled to find justice for his death. He was, she writes, "a martyr to what he believed was true." When the murderer Rena Chynoweth was acquitted, Solomon says, it was after a trial during which all the jurors were "spooked" in some way. Chynoweth later wrote a book about committing the crime, and the Allreds took her to court in a successful wrongful death suit.

Solomon remembers these hard times and good times without self-pity, with a sense of pride in her family and her own accomplishments. This is a remarkable look at female identity within plural marriage -- accompanied as it is by jealousy, heartache and moments of unusually close female connection.

To most readers, it will no doubt seem odd to think of a family that would disown a daughter who had chosen a monogamous marriage. Exotic and strange to most of us, the Allreds have a strong family belief system, which seems, in this remarkable memoir, to exact a painful and high price in terms of dysfunction and loss.

Book editor Susan Larson can be reached at or at (504) 826-3457.


San Antonio Express-News

Extreme faith

By Greg Jefferson

Web Posted : 07/20/2003 12:00 AM

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer

Doubleday, $26

Jon Krakauer made his name chronicling people struggling and ultimately failing along the edges — climbing Mount Everest ("Into Thin Air") or trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness ("Into the Wild").

He's no less concerned with the fringes in his new book, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." However, here Krakauer isn't exploring worldly limits, but the limits of religious faith, specifically Mormonism.

Krakauer tries to link two vicious murders 19 years ago to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' blood-soaked early history and the harsh fundamentalist groups that mushroomed after the church officially renounced polygamy. Unfortunately, his book grows unwieldy and the connections aren't always convincing.

"Under the Banner of Heaven" is nominally about two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who believed God called them to butcher sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in 1984. The book follows them from a strict Mormon childhood under an abusive father to their embrace of Mormon fundamentalism to a Utah prison, where they remain.

But Krakauer delves into much in between. Big theocratic, polygamous communities in Colorado City, Ariz., and Bountiful, British Columbia. LDS founder Joseph Smith's ascension. The bloody battles Mormons fought for survival in Missouri and Illinois. Smith's codification of polygamy and his assassination. Mormons' involvement in a savage attack on Arkansans headed to California — the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. Krakauer even works in a chapter on teenager Elizabeth Smart's abduction by an excommunicated Mormon and self-fashioned prophet.

In his postscript, Krakauer notes that he originally wanted to write a much more general work centering on "the uneasy, highly charged relationship between the LDS Church and its past." He even had a title: "History and Belief."

"History and Belief"? Apart from its flatness, the title reflects an overly broad sweep.

Instead, Krakauer narrowed his focus. But the resulting book still reaches too far.



Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003

In the Name of God
By Mark Emmons

One day during the summer of 1984, in a small Utah town, a 24-year-old woman and her 15-month-old baby daughter were brutally murdered -- their throats were slashed.

The gruesome nature of the crime was horrifying, but the subsequent revelation of facts surrounding the bloody crime would be even more incomprehensible.

The two killers who had broken into the home were relatives of the victims -- the woman's brothers-in-law.

Then came the real mind-bender: God, the brothers proudly and defiantly claimed, commanded them to do it.

This slaughter is the basis of Jon Krakauer's ``Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.'' But this is much more than a crime tale. It's a powerful look at how religious belief can cross the line into fanaticism.

It's also a book that resonates today as we continue to cope with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which thousands of innocent people were killed by zealots claiming to be doing the work of a higher power.

But while many Americans equate such extremism with the Middle East -- specifically Islam -- the killers here, Ron and Dan Lafferty, are Mormon fundamentalists, members of an offshoot sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not only is the mainstream LDS church the Western's Hemisphere's fastest-growing religion, it also is the United States' most successful homegrown one.

The author's unmistakable message: Perversions of faith can happen anywhere. These murders occurred in a place called American Fork.

And to say that the Mormon Church is unhappy with this book would be putting it mildly. But more on that later.

Krakauer is a bestselling author who has made his reputation writing about people who pushed their physical extremes -- most famously with ``Into Thin Air,'' his gripping first-person account of the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest. In the new book he delves into the realm of spiritual extremism.

Make no mistake, ``Under the Banner of Heaven'' is about as far from an outdoor adventure book as you can get. What remains the same, though, is strong storytelling that tries to make sense of a tragedy. In his author's remarks, Krakauer says he had set out to write a book about the LDS belief system. He was wise to narrow the focus and write a different, and frankly more compelling, book through the lens of the Laffertys.

In the opening pages, Krakauer baits the hook by giving the grisly account of the crime and the killers' unrepentant attitudes. Once we've bitten, he sets out to explain the environment that fostered the crime. In essence: How could such a terrible thing happen?

To that end, Krakauer visits secretive, breakaway fundamentalist communities that practice polygamy and are rife with accusations of incest and other abuse to women. He devotes a chapter to the bizarre abduction of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who last year was taken from her Utah home by a polygamous kidnapper.

It is, simply put, creepy stuff. It's also occasionally confusing -- especially when it comes to the convoluted family trees of polygamous families. That will happen when men marry their stepdaughters.

To fully understand why the Laffertys felt compelled, and justified, to commit two murders, Krakauer weaves throughout the book chapters detailing the fascinating roots of the Mormon Church.

He tells of the church's beginning in 1830 after its charismatic founder, Joseph Smith, was visited by an angel who led him to golden tablets buried in an upstate New York hill. It details both the persecution of Mormons on their trek west (Smith himself was killed in Illinois in 1844) and atrocities that followers of the new religion committed.

Polygamy outlawed

By far the most controversial of the early Mormons' beliefs was that of plural marriage: polygamy. Under intense government pressure, the church outlawed polygamy in 1890, although spin-off sects continue the practice even though it means being excommunicated by Mormon officials. The mainstream church even refuses to admit there is such a thing as a ``Mormon fundamentalist.''

Krakauer writes: ``Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle -- they try to keep the ``polygs'' hidden in the attic, safely out of sight, but the fundamentalists always seem to be sneaking out to appear in public at inopportune moments to create unsavory scenes, embarrassing the entire LDS clan.''

Such as the six Lafferty brothers. They came to see themselves as true believers; they thought the modern LDS church had lost its way and needed to return to the old rites -- including the practice of polygamy. The most strident of the brothers, Ron Lafferty, believed that God talked to him and eventually commanded him and his sibling Dan to kill the wife and baby of their youngest brother.

In the book, Dan Lafferty recounts that he talked to his niece, who smiled up at him from her crib, before he ended her life with a 10-inch boning knife. ``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.' ''

Then he nearly decapitated the child.

Mormon authorities, long accustomed to having to defend their faith, have been quick to respond to what they perceive as a wholesale attack by the book -- considering that Dan and Ron Lafferty had been excommunicated even before the slayings took place.

Church attacks book

An e-mail was sent out to newspapers in advance of the reviews, citing what the church sees as faulty logic and historical inaccuracies in Krakauer's work.

``This book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian,'' wrote a church spokesman. ``He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things.''

In fact, Krakauer states nothing of the sort. At no time does he belittle the Mormon faith, its core beliefs or even suggest that the Laffertys in any way represent Mormons as a group. What he has done, though, is vividly show how a faith -- any faith -- can have its tenets twisted to evil ends.

Both convicted killers remain behind bars. Ron Lafferty is on death row and running out of appeals.

Dan Lafferty, who was sentenced to life in prison, was a key source for Krakauer. During one poignant exchange near the end of the book, Krakauer asks him if he ever thinks about how much in common he might have with another fanatical fundamentalist -- Osama bin Laden.

Not surprisingly, Dan Lafferty didn't see a correlation. But Krakauer touched a nerve when he suggested that maybe Dan was like the Sept. 11 terrorists -- that no matter how devout their beliefs, they were still misguided.

``As he pauses to consider this possibility, there comes a moment when a shadow of doubt seems to flicker across his mien,'' Krakauer writes. ``But only for an instant, and then it's gone. `I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet,' Dan says. `They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I'm not.' ''

Without realizing it, Dan Lafferty inadvertently had summed up the scary mindset of a religious extremist.

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer


373 pp., $26



Violence and faith: a deadly combination


Whether he's tracing a young man's doomed journey into the Alaskan wilderness, as he did with Into The Wild, or chronicling an ill-fated expedition to scale Mount Everest, his focus for Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer is fascinated by human behavior that pushes the conventional limits. His new book, Under the Banner of Heaven, focuses on two Mormon fundamentalist brothers—Ron and Dan Lafferty—who killed their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter because, they said, God told them to do it.

This seems to be the season for probing the more extreme manifestations of Mormonism. Among the recent titles on the topic (both reviewed elsewhere in this issue) are Dorothy Allred Solomon's Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk, an account of growing up in a polygamous Mormon family during the 1950s and '60s, and Sally Denton's American Massacre, the story of the 1857 ambush of a wagon train at Mountain Meadows, Utah, a slaughter apparently ordered by Mormon chieftain Brigham Young. Krakauer alludes to Solomon's fundamentalist father and to the massacre in this probing narrative.

Looking into the mind of the true believer, he observes, "Ambiguity vanishes from [his] worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture."

Raised among Mormons he greatly admired, Krakauer treats their religion—in all its theological shades—quite seriously. There's never a snide remark or sarcastic aside. But his studiously balanced reporting can't soften the savagery of the deed he describes or make palatable the astounding and unrepentant arrogance of the men who committed it. In detailing the events that led to the double-murder, the author also offers a brief history of the Mormon church and the violence and doctrinal schisms that have attended its growth. To help explain why socially disturbing practices arise among certain Mormons, he examines life in the remote town of Colorado City, Arizona (formerly known as Short Creek), a fundamentalist stronghold where plural marriages, although illegal, flourish openly and at government expense. Less frightening than the killers themselves are the intellectually arid and institutionally paranoid communities that incubate them.

Krakauer also takes up the case of Elizabeth Smart, who last year, at the age of 14, was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City to become the "bride" of her fundamentalist kidnapper. While her kidnapping gained international attention, Krakauer shows that her fate was not radically different from that of many other young girls who have been taken into plural marriage against their will and brainwashed into conformity.

Shielded by their own sense of righteousness, the Lafferty brothers made no serious effort to cover their tracks after committing the 1984 murders. They were soon apprehended and convicted. Dan was given two life sentences; Ron was condemned to death but has yet to be executed. Krakauer makes no excuses for the Laffertys, but he does demonstrate that they were shaped by a theological mold. His insightful book brings readers closer to an understanding of their insular religion. Under the Banner of Heaven is a first-rate work of nonfiction from one of our most intrepid reporters.


The forgotten massacre of September 11
(Filed: 07/09/2003)

Damian Thompson reviews American Massacre: the Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857 by Sally Denton

Until two years ago, the worst mass murder in American domestic history was the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which a wagon train moving across Utah was cut down by white men disguised as Indians. It happened on September 11, 1857, which explains why there has been a recent surge of interest in the incident. But the extraordinary thing is that it should have been forgotten in the first place. Anyone who reads Sally Denton's investigation will be left asking: how could this tragedy, more horrible in every way than Custer's Last Stand, have been reduced to a historical footnote?

The Fancher train consisted of 40 of the most richly laden wagons ever to set out for California. Its occupants, mostly Arkansas Methodists, trundled along at 12 miles an hour, slowed by their immense herd of cattle. They were looking forward to arriving in Salt Lake City. Founded only a decade earlier, the Mormon capital was, in the words of one historian, "the most ambitious desert civilisation the world has seen". Its 132ft-wide streets radiated from the temple along the points of the compass; it advertised itself as a place where pioneers could re-stock before the difficult last stretch of the journey west.

What was not advertised was the fact that its leader, Brigham Young, under threat of invasion by US troops, had plunged Utah into a sort of Mormon Cultural Revolution. Expecting the Second Coming of Christ, he had revived the practice of blood atonement, in which dissident Latter-day Saints were beheaded by a secret society of avengers known as the Danites. Hostile "gentiles" (non-Mormons) were also legitimate targets, and for some reason - no one is quite sure why - the Church leaders placed the Fancher train in this category.

The emigrants knew there was something wrong when, mysteriously, every store in Salt Lake City refused to sell them food. Pressing south, half starved, they met the same surly hostility. They were relieved when they reached the lush alpine grasses of Mountain Meadow: here was a place to recuperate. But at dawn on September 7, as the smell of coffee wafted over the campfire, a shot rang out and one of the children toppled over. In a rain of gunfire, seven men fell dead. The meadow was, in fact, a killing field, surrounded by rocky outcrops that provided cover for hidden assassins.

After a four-day siege, a Mormon militia leader, John D Lee, offered to broker a truce with the attackers, whom he identified as Paiute Indians. The Fancher party surrendered their arms and began marching towards the nearest town under Mormon escort. What happened next will never be entirely clear, but it seems that, on an order from Lee, disguised Danites shot the Fancher men and, in accordance with the law of blood atonement, slit the throats of the ex-Mormons who had joined the train. The women were shot or stabbed with bayonets. The only children left alive were those under eight years old, the Mormon "age of innocence"; one little boy remembered that the Indian murderers turned white after they washed their faces. By one account, it took just three minutes to kill 121 people. There was a public outcry, but the Civil War intervened, and in the end only Lee was brought to justice.

Denton's fascinating study establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Mormons committed the massacre. She also demonstrates that, for more than a century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vigorously put about a false version of events. How convenient for her, though, that these conclusions should so closely match the prejudices of the East Coast literary establishment, exonerating the Indians while incriminating the ancestors of one of the country's most despised minorities - the rich, white, secretive, Republican-voting Mormons.

What Denton cannot quite prove is that Brigham Young ordered the massacre. He may have done so, but the written evidence has never turned up. Until it does, the Mormons can wriggle off the hook. This is a religion, after all, whose scriptures chronicle the doings of Hebrew tribes in pre-Columbian America; it has developed a pretty thick hide when it comes to historical criticism. There are calls for the Church to apologise for the Mountain Meadows massacre, just as the Catholics have apologised for the Crusades. Don't hold your breath.


'It is a command of God to you'
(Filed: 28/09/2003)

Hilary Spurling reviews Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakaer

The core of this book is an interview with a Mormon, handcuffed and shackled by the ankles in Utah State Prison, who hasn't cut his hair or shaved his beard for 18 years because he believes himself to be a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. "I'm here to prepare the way for the return of the Son of Man," Dan Lafferty explained to Jon Krakauer. "I will be the one who will identify Christ when He returns."

On July 24, 1984, Dan turned up on the doorstep of his sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, who refused to let him use her phone. "I was kind of silently talking to God," he explained to Krakauer, "and I asked, `What do I do now?' It felt comfortable to push past her and enter the house, so that's what I did.'" A few minutes later, Dan's elder brother Ron burst in to find him sitting astride Brenda on the floor, still being talked through his mission by remote control. "And I kind of said to myself, `What am I supposed to do, Lord?' Then I felt impressed that I was supposed to use a knife. That I was supposed to cut their throats." So he did, murdering first his baby niece, then her mother, with a butcher's knife supplied by Ron.

Both men insisted they had committed no crime, since they were acting on orders from heaven. Both were relatively recent converts to Mormon Fundamentalism. Both had imposed the US equivalent of Taliban law on their respective households. Their wives were no longer allowed to drive, handle money, seek medical advice or talk to anyone outside the house. Their children were taken out of school and forbidden to watch television. The Laffertys stopped paying taxes, tore up their driving licences and removed their car numberplates. Ron gave up work to live by scavenging. Dan prepared to observe the only law he recognised – the sacred command of polygamy – by taking his teenage step-daughter as a second wife.

In the Lafferty family there were six Fundamentalist brothers. Of their six wives, the only one to put up any serious resistance was the youngest, Brenda, who was also the only one with a university education. Pretty, independent and smart, Brenda was hosting a local TV news show by the age of 21, when she rashly married the charismatic Allen Lafferty without realising that marriage committed her, by his rules, to domestic slavery. When Ron's wife appealed for help, it was Brenda who advised divorce. "The Lafferty boys didn't like Brenda," her sister told Krakauer, "because she got in their way."

Operations like the Laffertys', run by divine revelation out of the back of a car in suburban America, go back directly to the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, who identified himself in 1831 as a second Mohammed prepared to reduce his enemies to "one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean". Enemies meant anyone attempting to interfere with a rule of life that defined adult Mormon males as saints, and women as their property. Smith married 40 wives in four years, many of them barely into their teens ("It is a command of God to you," he said to one furious 14-year-old who tried to object). Monogamy, homosexuality or having a black skin remain sins pretty much indistinguishable from crimes in fundamentalist communities such as Colorado City, where all authority – from church and school to the police force and prison service – still rests in Mormon hands. Krakauer documents a long history of institutionalised child abuse, abduction, incest and rape.

Under the Banner of Heaven documents the bloodsoaked underside of orthodox Mormonism's sober, industrious, clean-living image. Mormons already outnumber both Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the US. Krakauer's excellent book – a lucid, judicious, even sympathetic account not just of Mormon Fundamentalism but of the seductive power of fanaticism in general – ends with a global forecast of 300 million Mormons by the end of the century.


 MACMILLAN Ł17.99 (400pp) Ł15.99 (plus Ł2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 800 1122

Under the Banner of Heaven By Jon Krakauer

Saints and sinners in God's own land

By Douglas Kennedy

17 October 2003

Did you know that Jesus Christ once visited the United States? Shortly after His resurrection, he made a little trip to share His gospel with some early residents of God's Preferred Terrain. These inhabitants - known as Nephites and Lamanites - descended from an ancient Hebrew tribe, headed by a virtuous man named Lehi who abandoned Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Christ and journeyed to America by boat.

Sadly, upon arrival in this terra incognita, there was something of a domestic, with Lehi's favourite son, Nephi, breaking off to form one tribe, while his bad news brother, Laman, formed a warring faction. This splinter group, the Lamanites, were "an idle people, full of mischief", whose behaviour was so annoying to God that He cursed the whole lot of them with dark skin.

Now Jesus being Jesus, during his visit to the States he persuaded the two warring tribes to bury the hatchet. But by 400AD, war broke out. The Lamanites massacred the Nephites, who went on to become "red sons of Israel", better known as American Indians.

However, the final chief of the Nephites was "a heroic figure of uncommon wisdom named Mormon". His son, Moroni, was the last guy standing during the slaughter, yet he did manage to write an account of this massacre. And 1400 years later, he appeared as an angel to a certain Joseph Smith on a hill in upstate New York and delivered unto him a set of golden plates upon which were inscribed The Book of Mormon, "so that the blood-soaked history of his people could be shared with the world, and thereby effect the salvation of mankind".

That, in a nutshell, is the background to the creation of one of the world's most successful religions: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as Mormonism. It wasn't just the Nephites who had a blood-soaked history. As Jon Krakauer's riveting new book delineates, the Mormons have many a murderous skeleton in their closet - such as the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, when a group of Arkansan emigrants heading west through the Mormon holy land of Utah where slaughtered by a militia of Latter Day Saints.

The religious epic of Mormonism is a violent one. From Smith's establishment of a commune in Illinois to his murder at the hands of a lynch mob, to Brigham Young's attempt to set up his own theocracy in Utah, to the US government's attempts to rein in such ecclesiastical imperialism, to the faction-fighting when the elders renounced polygamy, the church has known (and meted out) brutality in extremis.

Krakauer's remarkable book is, on one level, a re-telling of Mormon history with quiet detachment and fiendish clarity. But it is also the account of a gruesome murder case in July 1984, when two fundamentalist Latter Day Saint brothers slit the throats of a young Mormon woman and her baby daughter - because, according to them, God ordered them (personal revelations being a wholly acceptable tenet of the faith). The brothers were breakaways, intimately involved with fundamentalist Mormon sects throughout North America. These sects operate as their own mini-theocracies, with rigid, misogynistic codes and practices (including polygamy).

Krakauer never editoralises, never steps into the narrative. This strategy is devastatingly effective, as facts speak for themselves to point up the inherent strangeness of Mormonism.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that "One man's faith is another man's delusion" and, at heart, Under the Banner of Heaven is all about the extremities of faith. (Just as Krakauer's Into Thin Air - an account of a disastrous expedition on Everest - concerned itself with another brand of all-encompassing fanaticism.)

For anyone interested in the wilder frontiers of spiritual conviction, this book is a must. More tellingly, it is also a remarkable exploration of American religiosity, and a church that somehow transcended its cultish origins to become a potent global force. It's a necessary reminder that the the springboard of all religious extremism is the human hunger for answers to life's most unanswerable questions. And though you might laugh at the idea of Jesus once visiting America... to a Mormon, it's gospel.

Douglas Kennedy's new novel is 'A Special Relationship' (Hutchinson); he also wrote 'In God's Country: travels in the Bible Belt, USA' (Abacus)




‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Jon Krakauer





August 3, 2003

'Under the Banner of Heaven'




For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. -Deuteronomy 14:2

And it shall come to pass that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God -The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 85 revealed to Joseph Smith on November 27, 1832

Balanced atop the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple, gleaming in the Utah sun, a statue of the angel Moroni stands watch over downtown Salt Lake City with his golden trumpet raised This massive granite edifice is the spiritual and temporal nexus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which presents itself as the world's only true religion. Temple Square is to Mormons what the Vatican is to Catholics, or the Kaaba in Mecca is to Muslims. At last count there were more than eleven million Saints the world over, and Mormonism is the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere. At present in the United States there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. On the planet as a whole, there are now more Mormons than Jews. Mormonism is considered in some sober academic circles to be well on its way to becoming a major world religion-the first such faith to emerge since Islam.

Next door to the temple, the 325 voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir swell to fill the tabernacle's vast interior with the robust, haunting chords of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the ensemble's trademark song: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord .."

To much of the world, this choir and its impeccably rendered harmonies are emblematic of the Mormons as a people: chaste, optimistic, outgoing, dutiful. When Dan Lafferty quotes Mormon scripture to justify murder, the juxtaposition is so incongruous as to seem surreal.

The affairs of Mormondom are directed by a cadre of elderly white males in dark suits who carry out their holy duties from a twenty-six-story office tower beside Temple Square. To a man, the LDS leadership adamantly insists that Lafferty should under no circumstances be considered a Mormon. The faith that moved Lafferty to slay his niece and sister-in-law is a brand of religion known as Mormon Fundamentalism; LDS Church authorities bristle visibly when Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are even mentioned in the same breath. As Gordon B. Hinckley, the then-eighty-eight-year-old LDS president and prophet, emphasized during a 1998 television interview on Larry King Live, "They have no connection with us whatever. They don't belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon Fundamentalists."

Nevertheless, Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists (or FLDS) believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history. Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God's plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable in stature to Moses and Isaiah. Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are each convinced that God regards them, and them alone, as his favored children: "a peculiar treasure unto me above all people." But if both proudly refer to themselves as the Lord's chosen, they diverge on one especially inflammatory point of religious doctrine: unlike their present-day Mormon compatriots, Mormon Fundamentalists passionately believe that Saints have a divine obligation to take multiple wives. Followers of the FLDS faith engage in polygamy, they explain, as a matter of religious duty.

There are more than thirty thousand FLDS polygamists living in Canada, Mexico, and throughout the American West. Some experts estimate there may be as many as one hundred thousand. Even this larger number amounts to less than 1 percent of the membership in the LDS Church worldwide, but all the same, leaders of the mainstream church are extremely discomfited by these legions of polygamous brethren. Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle-they try to keep the "polygs" hidden in the attic, safely out of sight, but the fundamentalists always seem to be sneaking out to appear in public at inopportune moments to create unsavory scenes, embarrassing the entire LDS clan.

The LDS Church happens to be exceedingly prickly about its short, uncommonly rich history-and no aspect of that history makes the church more defensive than "plural marriage." The LDS leadership has worked very hard to persuade both the modern church membership and the American public that polygamy was a quaint, long-abandoned idiosyncrasy practiced by a mere handful of nineteenth-century Mormons. The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith-still the religion's focal personage-married at least thirty-three women, and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.

Polygamy was, in fact, one of the most sacred credos of Joseph's church-a tenet important enough to be canonized for the ages as Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants, one of Mormonism's primary scriptural texts. The revered prophet described plural marriage as part of "the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth" and taught that a man needed at least three wives to attain the "fullness of exaltation" in the afterlife. He warned that God had explicitly commanded that "all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same .. and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory."

Joseph was murdered in Illinois by a mob of Mormon haters in 1844. Brigham Young assumed leadership of the church and led the Saints to the barren wilds of the Great Basin, where in short order they established a remarkable empire and unabashedly embraced the covenant of "spiritual wifery." This both titillated and shocked the sensibilities of Victorian-era Americans, who tended to regard polygamy as a brutish practice on a par with slavery. In 1856, recognizing the strength of the anti-polygamy vote, Republican candidate John C. Fremont ran for president on a platform that pledged to "prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism-Polygamy and Slavery." Fremont lost the election, but a year later the man who did win, President James Buchanan, sent the U.S. Army to invade Utah, dismantle Brigham Young's theocracy, and eradicate polygamy.

The so-called Utah War, however, neither removed Brigham from power nor ended the doctrine of plural marriage, to the annoyance and bafflement of a whole series of American presidents. An escalating sequence of judicial and legislative challenges to polygamy ensued, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which disincorporated the LDS Church and forfeited to the federal government all church property worth more than $50,000. With their feet held fast to the fire, the Saints ultimately had no choice but to renounce polygamy. But even as LDS leaders publicly claimed, in 1890, to have relinquished the practice, they quietly dispatched bands of Mormons to establish polygamous colonies in Mexico and Canada, and some of the highest-ranking LDS authorities secretly continued to take multiple wives and perform plural marriages well into the twentieth century.

Although LDS leaders were initially loath to abandon plural marriage, eventually they adopted a more pragmatic approach to American politics, emphatically rejected the practice, and actually began urging government agencies to prosecute polygamists. It was this single change in ecclesiastical policy, more than anything else, that transformed the LDS Church into its astonishingly successful present-day iteration. Having jettisoned polygamy, Mormons gradually ceased to be regarded as a crackpot sect. The LDS Church acquired the trappings of a conventional faith so successfully that it is now widely considered to be the quintessential American religion.

Mormon Fundamentalists, however, believe that acceptance into the American mainstream came at way too high a price. They contend that the Mormon leaders made an unforgivable compromise by capitulating to the U.S. government on polygamy over a century ago. They insist that the church sold them out-that the LDS leadership abandoned one of the religion's most crucial theological tenets for the sake of political expediency. These present-day polygamists therefore consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame-the only true and righteous Mormons. In forsaking Section 132-the sacred principle of plural marriage-the LDS Church has gone badly astray, they warn. Fundamentalist prophets bellow from their pulpits that the modern church has become "the wickedest whore of all the earth."

Mormon Fundamentalists probably cite Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants more than any other piece of LDS scripture. Their second-most-popular citation is likely Section 85, in which it was revealed to Joseph that "I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong ... to set in order the house of God." Many fundamentalists are convinced that the one mighty and strong is already here on earth among them, "holding the scepter of power in his hand," and that very soon now he will lead the Mormon Church back onto the right path and restore Joseph's "most holy and important doctrine."

Chapter Two


Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all. To speak of a fringe implies a mainstream, but in terms of numbers, perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary America remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strands. The doomsday theme has never been far from the center of American religious thought. The nation has always had believers who responded to this threat by a determination to flee from the wrath to come, to separate themselves from the City of Destruction, even if that meant putting themselves at odds with the law and with their communities or families.... We can throughout American history find select and separatist groups who looked to a prophetic individual claiming divine revelation, in a setting that repudiated conventional assumptions about property, family life, and sexuality. They were marginal groups, peculiar people, people set apart from the world: the Shakers and the Ephrata community, the communes of Oneida and Amana, the followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs

Snaking diagonally across the top of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is a stupendous, 277-mile rent in the planet's hide that functions as a formidable natural barrier, effectively cutting off the northwestern corner from the rest of the state. This isolated wedge of backcountry-almost as big as New Jersey, yet traversed by a single paved highway-is known as the Arizona Strip, and it has one of the lowest population densities in the forty-eight conterminous states.

There is, however, one relatively large municipality here. Colorado City, home to some nine thousand souls, is more than five times as populous as any other town in the district. Motorists driving west on Highway 389 across the parched barrens of the Uinkaret Plateau are apt to be surprised when, twenty-eight miles past Fredonia (population 1,036, the second-largest town on the Strip), Colorado City suddenly materializes in the middle of nowhere: a sprawl of small businesses and unusually large homes squatting beneath a towering escarpment of vermilion sandstone called Canaan Mountain. All but a handful of the town's residents are Mormon Fundamentalists. They live in this patch of desert in the hope of being left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage without interference from government authorities or the LDS Church.

Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, Colorado City is home to at least three Mormon Fundamentalist sects, including the world's largest: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. More commonly known as the United Effort Plan, or UEP, it requires its members live in strict accordance with the commandments of a frail, ninety-two-year-old tax accountant-turned-prophet named Rulon T. Jeffs. "Uncle Rulon," as he is known to hisfollowers, traces his divinely ordained leadership in an unbroken chain that leads directly back to Joseph Smith himself. Although his feeble bearing would seem to make him poorly cast for the role, the residents of Colorado City believe that Uncle Rulon is the "one mighty and strong" whose coming was prophesied by Joseph in 1832.

"A lot of people here are convinced Uncle Rulon is going to live forever," says DeLoy Bateman, a forty-eight-year-old science teacher at Colorado City High School. Not only was DeLoy born and raised in this faith, but his forebears were some of the religion's most illustrious figures: his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were among the thirteen founding members of the Mormon Fundamentalist Church, and his adoptive grandfather, LeRoy Johnson, was the prophet who immediately preceded Uncle Rulon as the leader of Colorado City. At the moment, DeLoy is driving his thirdhand Chevy van on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. One of his two wives and eight of his seventeen children are riding in the back. Suddenly he hits the brakes, and the van lurches to a stop on the shoulder. "Now there's an interesting sight," DeLoy declares, sizing up the wreckage of a television satellite dish behind some sagebrush off the side of the road. "Looks like somebody had to get rid of their television. Hauled it out of town and dumped it."

Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers. The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb. "As soon as you ban something," DeLoy observes, "you make it incredibly attractive. People will sneak into St. George or Cedar City and buy themselves a dish, put it up where it can't easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment. Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He'll announce that he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy.

"Every time he does that, a bunch of satellite dishes immediately get dumped in the desert, like this one here.


‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air,” on the extreme fringe of modern Mormonism

July 16 —  In 1984, two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, were convicted of murdering their sister-in-law and her baby daughter. The reason? They say they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill. Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air,” constructs a chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Along the way, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest-growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief. Read an excerpt of “Under the Banner of Heaven” to learn about the extreme fringe of modern Mormonism.


       ALMOST EVERYONE IN Utah County has heard of the Lafferty boys. That’s mostly a function of the lurid murders, of course, but the Lafferty surname had a certain prominence in the county even before Brenda and Erica Lafferty were killed. Watson Lafferty, the patriarch of the clan, was a chiropractor who ran a thriving practice out of his home in downtown Provo’s historic quarter. He and his wife, Claudine, had six boys and two girls, in whom they instilled an unusually strong work ethic and intense devotion to the Mormon Church. The entire family was admired for its industriousness and probity.
       Allen — the youngest of the Lafferty children, now in his mid-forties — works as a tile setter, a trade he has plied since he was a teenager. In the summer of 1984 he was living with his twenty-four-year-old wife and baby daughter in American Fork, a sleepy, white-bread suburb alongside the freeway that runs from Provo to Salt Lake City. Brenda, his spouse, was a onetime beauty queen recognized around town from her tenure as the anchor of a newsmagazine program on channel 11, the local PBS affiliate. Although she had abandoned her nascent broadcasting career to marry Allen and start a family, Brenda had lost none of the exuberance that had endeared her to television viewers. Warm and outgoing, she’d made a lasting impression.
       On the morning of July 24, 1984, Allen left their small duplex apartment before the sun was up and drove eighty miles up the interstate to work at a construction site east of Ogden. During his lunch break he phoned Brenda, who chatted with him for a minute before putting their fifteen-month-old daughter, Erica, on the line. Erica gurgled a few words of baby talk; then Brenda told her husband everything was fine and said good-bye.

Allen arrived home around eight that evening, tired from the long workday. He walked up to the front door and was surprised to find it locked; they almost never locked their doors. He used his key to enter, and then was surprised again by the baseball game blaring from the television in the living room. Neither he nor Brenda liked baseball — they never watched it. After he’d turned off the TV, the apartment seemed preternaturally quiet to him, as though nobody was home. Allen figured Brenda had taken the baby and gone out. “I turned to go and see if maybe she was at the neighbors’,” he explained later, “and I noticed some blood near the door on a light switch.”
       And then he saw Brenda in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor in a lake of blood.
       Upon calling Brenda’s name and getting no reply, he knelt beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. “I touched her,” he said, “and her body felt cool... There was blood on her face and pretty much everywhere.” Allen reached for the kitchen phone, which was resting on the floor next to his wife, and dialed 911 before he realized there was no dial tone. The cord had been yanked from the wall. As he walked to their bedroom to try the extension in there, he glanced into the baby’s room and saw Erica slumped over in her crib in an odd position, motionless. She was wearing nothing but a diaper, which was soaked with blood, as were the blankets surrounding her.

 Allen hurried to the master bedroom only to find the phone in there out of order, as well, so he went next door to a neighbor’s apartment, where he was finally able to call for help. He described the carnage to the 911 dispatcher, then called his mother.
       While he waited for the police to show up, Allen returned to his apartment. “I went to Brenda and I prayed,” he said. “And then as I stood, I surveyed the situation a little more, and realized that there had been a grim struggle.” For the first time he noticed that the blood wasn’t confined to the kitchen: it smeared the living room walls, the floor, the doors, the curtains. It was obvious to him who was responsible. He’d known the moment he’d first seen Brenda on the kitchen floor.
       The cops took Allen down to the American Fork police station and grilled him throughout the night. They assumed he was the murderer; the husband usually is. By and by, however, Allen convinced them that the prime suspect was actually the oldest of his five brothers, Ron Lafferty. Ron had just returned to Utah County after spending most of the previous three months traveling around the West with another Lafferty brother, Dan. An APB went out for Ron’s car, a pale green 1974 Impala station wagon with Utah plates.
       The slayings appeared to be ritualistic, which drew uncommon attention from the news media and put the public on edge. By the next evening the Lafferty killings led news broadcasts across the state. On Thursday, July 26, a headline on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune announced,
       By Mike Gorrell, Tribune Staff Writer
       And Ann Shields, Tribune Correspondent

       AMERICAN FORK—Lawmen in Utah and surrounding states searched Wednesday for a former Highland, Utah County, city councilman and religious fundamentalist charged with the Tuesday murders of his sister-in-law and her 15-month-old baby.
       Ronald Watson Lafferty, 42, no address available, was charged with two counts of capital homicide in the deaths of Brenda Wright Lafferty, 24, and her daughter, Erica Lane...
       American Fork police have not established a motive for the killings and have refused to comment on rumors that the suspect, an excommunicated member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was involved with either polygamist or fundamentalist religious sects and that those ties may have contributed to the killings...

       Neighbors expressed disbelief that “this sort of thing” could happen in their area. “The whole town’s in shock that such a thing could happen in a nice quiet community like American Fork. People who said they had never locked their doors said they were going to now,” said one neighbor who asked not to be identified.
       Ken Beck, a bishop in the American Fork LDS ward which Allen and Brenda Lafferty attended, said they were “a nice ordinary couple,” active in church affairs. Immediately below this story, also on the front page, was an accompanying piece:
       Special to The Tribune
       AMERICAN FORK — A determined man who evolved from an active Mormon and conservative Republican to a strict constitutionalist and excommunicated fundamentalist is how neighbors remember Ronald Watson Lafferty...
       Mr. Lafferty served on Highland’s first City Council when the small northern Utah County town was incorporated in 1977. At the time, Mr. Lafferty successfully led a drive to outlaw beer sales in the town’s only grocery store — where travelers to American Fork Canyon still can’t buy beer.
       “Two years ago, he looked clean, all-American, even in the mornings after milking the family cow,” said a neighbor who resides in an acre-lot subdivision filled with children, horses, goats, chickens and large garden plots where Mr. Lafferty once lived.

       Last year he and his wife of several years divorced. Mr. Lafferty has not been seen in the neighborhood for a year.
       Shortly after Christmas, Mrs. Diana Lafferty, described as “a pillar of the Mormon ward,” took the couple’s six children out of state.
       Neighbors said the divorce stemmed from differences of opinion on religion and politics.
       “He talked about standing up for what was right — no matter the consequences,” said a neighbor.
       Friends said Mr. Lafferty’s political beliefs changed as well—or perhaps evolved — from conservative Republican to strict fundamentalism. During the 12 years he lived in Highland, he came to believe in a return to the gold standard, strict constitutionalism and obedience only to “righteous laws,” said a neighbor.
       “He had a fervent desire to save the Constitution — and the country,” said a long-time friend. “It became a religious obsession.”
       Detectives interviewed as many of Allen’s siblings as they could locate, as well as his mother and various friends. As the front page of Saturday’s Tribune revealed, the cops were beginning to piece together a motive for the brutal acts:
       By Ann Shields
       Tribune Correspondent

       AMERICAN FORK — Two more men Friday were charged with first-degree murder in connection with the July 24 slaying of an American Fork woman and her 15-month-old daughter as police disclosed that the killings may have been
       part of a religious “revelation.”
       Charged Friday with capital homicide were Dan Lafferty, age unavailable, Salem, a former candidate for Utah County sheriff and the victim’s brother-in-law, and Richard M. Knapp, 24, formerly of Wichita, Kan.
       Dan Lafferty’s brother, Ronald Lafferty, 42, Highland, Utah County, was charged Wednesday with two counts of first-degree murder...
       Police Chief Randy Johnson... revealed Friday that the investigation into the murders has caused police to believe “... that Ron had a handwritten revelation which told him to commit this crime. If this document does exist it is a vital piece of evidence and we would like to see it.” He asked anyone with information regarding the document to contact the American Fork Police Department or the FBI...
       Chief Johnson said the men are believed to be armed and should be considered dangerous, particularly to law enforcement officials...
       Neighbors and friends of the suspects and victims noted that Ron Lafferty apparently was affiliated or had founded a polygamist or fundamentalist religious sect, causing speculation that the crimes may have resulted from a religious argument in the family.

       On July 30, Ron’s run-down Impala was spotted parked in front of a house in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When they raided the home, police didn’t find the Lafferty brothers, but they did arrest Richard “Ricky” Knapp and Chip Carnes, two drifters who had been traveling around the West with the Laffertys since early summer. Information provided by Knapp and Carnes led authorities to Reno, Nevada, where, on August 7, the police arrested Ron and Dan as they stood in line for the buffet at the Circus Circus casino.
       From jail, before their trial, the brothers launched an unpersuasive media campaign protesting their innocence. Ron insisted that the charges against them were false and that the Mormon Church, which “controlled everything in Utah,” would prevent his brother and him from receiving a fair trial. Although he confessed to believing in the righteousness of “plural marriage,” Ron said he had never practiced polygamy or belonged to an extremist sect. He then professed to love the Mormon Church, while at the same time warning that the current LDS leadership had strayed from the sacred doctrines of the religion’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith.

   Four days later Dan Lafferty issued a written statement to the media in which he declared that he and Ron were “not guilty of any of the crimes for which we have been accused,” adding that “the time is at hand when the true criminals will be made known.”
       On December 29, five days before their trial was scheduled to begin in Provo, Lieutenant Jerry Scott, the commander of the Utah County Jail, took Dan from his cell to ask him some questions. When Dan returned, he found his older brother suspended by his neck from a towel rack in an adjacent cell, unconscious and no longer breathing; Ron had used a T-shirt to hang himself. “I pushed the intercom button and told them they better get down there,” Dan says. Lieutenant Scott arrived immediately but could detect no pulse in Ron. Although Scott and two other deputies administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, they were unable to revive him. By the time paramedics showed up, said Scott, the inmate “appeared dead.”
       Despite the fact that Ron had stopped breathing for an estimated fifteen minutes, the paramedics eventually managed to get his heart beating again, and he was placed on a respirator in the intensive care unit of the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. After remaining comatose for two days, he regained consciousness — an astonishing recovery that Dan attributes to divine intervention. Although the brothers were slated to be tried together three days after Ron emerged from his coma, Judge J. Robert Bullock ordered that Dan should be tried alone, as scheduled, allowing Ron time to recover and undergo extensive psychiatric evaluation to determine if he’d suffered brain damage.
       The court appointed two attorneys to represent Dan, but he insisted on defending himself, relegating them to advisory roles. Five days after the trial began, the jury went into deliberation, and nine hours later found Dan guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. During the subsequent session to determine whether Dan should be put to death for his crimes, Dan assured the jurors, “If I was in your situation, I would impose the death penalty,” and promised not to appeal if they arrived at such a sentence.
       “The judge freaked out when I said that,” Dan later explained. “He thought I was expressing a death wish, and warned the jury that they couldn’t vote to execute me just because I had a death wish. But I just wanted them to feel free to follow their conscience. I didn’t want them to worry or feel guilty about giving me a death sentence, if that’s what they thought I deserved. I was willing to take a life for God, so it seemed to me that I should also be willing to give my own life for God. If God wanted me to be executed, I was fine with that.”
       Ten jurors voted for death, but two others refused to go along with the majority. Because unanimity was required to impose a capital sentence, Dan’s life was spared. According to the jury foreman, one of the jurors who balked at executing Dan was a woman whom he had manipulated through “eye-contact, smiles, and other charismatic, non verbal attachments and psycho-sexual seduction,” causing her to ignore both the evidence and the instructions provided by the judge. The foreman, aghast that Dan had thereby avoided a death sentence, was furious.
       Dan says that he, too, “was a little disappointed that I wasn’t executed, in a strange sense.”
       Addressing the convicted prisoner with undisguised scorn, Judge Bullock reminded Dan that it was “man’s law, which you disdain, that saved your life.” Then, his disgust getting the better of him, he added, “In my twelve years as a judge, I have never presided over a trial of such a cruel, heinous, pointless and senseless a crime as the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. Nor have I seen an accused who had so little remorse or feeling.” This admonishment came from the same hardened judge who, in 1976, had presided over the notorious, history-making trial of Gary Mark Gilmore for the unprovoked murders of two young Mormons.* After telling the 1985 court that the jury had been unable to agree on a sentence of death, Judge Bullock turned to Dan and said, “I mean to see that every minute of [your] life is spent behind the bars of the Utah State Prison and I so order.” He sentenced Dan to two life terms.
       Ron’s trial began almost four months later, in April 1985, after a battery of psychiatrists and psychologists had determined that he was mentally competent. His court-appointed attorneys hoped to get the murder charges reduced to manslaughter by arguing that Ron was suffering from mental illness when he and Dan murdered Brenda Lafferty and her baby, but Ron refused to allow them to mount such a defense. “It seems it would be an admission of guilt,” he told Judge Bullock. “I’m not prepared to do that.”
       Ron was convicted of first-degree murder, and on this occasion the jury did not balk at imposing capital punishment. They sentenced him to die, either by lethal injection or four bullets through the heart at close range. Ron chose the latter.
       *The first convict to be executed in the United States in more than a decade, Gary Gilmore came to symbolize America’s renewed embracing of capital punishment in the 1970s. His story has been memorably told by his brother, Mikal Gilmore, in Shot in the Heart, and by Norman Mailer in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Executioner’s Song. The Gilmore and Lafferty trials happened to share a number of protagonists in addition to Judge J. Robert Bullock: one of Gary Gilmore’s court-appointed lawyers was Mike Esplin, who was later assigned to represent Ron and Dan Lafferty in their murder trials. And Utah County Attorney Noall T. Wootton prosecuted Gilmore as well as both Lafferty brothers.
       On January 15, 1985, immediately after Judge Bullock decreed that the remainder of Dan Lafferty’s life would unfold in captivity, he was taken to the state prison at Point of the Mountain, near Draper, Utah, where a corrections officer cut his hair and sheared off his whiskers. That was nearly seventeen years ago, and Dan hasn’t shaved or cut his hair since. His beard, wrapped with rubber bands into a stiff gray cable, now descends to his belly. His hair has gone white and fans across the back of his orange prison jumpsuit. Although he is fifty-four years old and crow’s-feet furrow the corners of his eyes, there is something unmistakably boyish about his countenance. His skin is so pale it seems translucent.
       A crude tattoo of a spider web radiates from Dan’s left elbow, wrapping the crook of his arm in a jagged indigo lattice. His wrists are bound in handcuffs, and his shackled ankles are chained to a steel ring embedded in the concrete floor. On his otherwise bare feet are cheap rubber flip-flops. A large man, he cheerfully refers to the prison’s maximum-security unit as “my monastery.”
       Every morning a wake-up alarm echoes through the halls of the unit at 6:30, followed by a head count. The door to his cell remains locked twenty hours a day. Even when it isn’t locked, Dan says, “I’m almost always in my cell. The only time I leave is to shower or serve food — I have a job serving meals.
       But I don’t really associate with people that much. I try not to leave my cell more often than I absolutely have to. There are so many assholes in here. They get you caught up in their little dramas, and you end up having to fuck somebody up. And the next thing you know your privileges are taken away. I’ve got too much to lose. I’m in a really comfortable situation right now. I’ve got a really good cellie, and I don’t want to lose him.”
       That “cellie,” or cell mate, is Mark Hofmann, a once-devout Mormon who lost his faith while serving as a missionary in England and secretly became an atheist, although he continued to present himself as an exemplary Latter-day Saint when he returned to Utah. Soon thereafter, Hofmann discovered that he had a special talent for forgery. He began to churn out bogus historical documents, brilliantly rendered, which fetched large sums from collectors.
       In October 1985, upon concluding that investigators were about to discover that several old Mormon documents he’d sold were fakes, he detonated a series of pipe bombs to divert detectives from his trail, killing two guiltless fellow Saints in the process.* Many of Hofmann’s forgeries were intended to discredit Joseph Smith and the sacred history of Mormonism; more than four hundred of these fraudulent artifacts were purchased by the LDS Church (which believed they were authentic), then squirreled away in a vault to keep them from the public eye.
       Although Hofmann now expresses contempt for religion in general and Mormonism in particular, his atheism doesn’t seem to be an issue in his friendship with Dan Lafferty — despite the fact that Dan remains, by his own proud characterization, a religious zealot. “My beliefs are irrelevant to my cellie,” Dan confirms. “We’re special brothers all the same. We’re bound by the heart.”
       Prior to Dan’s conviction, and for more than a decade afterward, he steadfastly maintained that he was innocent of the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. When he was arrested in Reno in August 1984, he told the arresting officers, “You think I have committed a crime of homicide, but I hanot.” He still insists that he is innocent of any crime but, paradoxically, does not deny that he killed Brenda and Erica. When asked to explain how both these apparently contradictory statements can be true, he says, “I was doing God’s will, which is not a crime.”
       *Mark Hofmann’s criminal activities have been deftly recounted in A Gathering of Saints, by Robert Lindsey, and Salamander, by Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts.
       Lafferty isn’t reticent about describing exactly what happened on July 24, 1984. He says that shortly after noon, he, Ron, and the two drifters who had been traveling with them, Ricky Knapp and Chip Carnes, drove to the apartment of his youngest brother, Allen, in American Fork, twenty minutes down the interstate from where he is now imprisoned. Inside the brick duplex he found his fifteen-month-old niece, Erica, standing in her crib, smiling up at him. “I spoke to her for a minute,” Lafferty recalls. “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.’ ” And then he ended her life with a ten-inch boning knife.
       After dispatching Erica, he calmly walked into the kitchen and used the same knife to kill the baby’s mother. Now, seventeen years after committing these two murders, he insists, very convincingly, that he has never felt any regret for the deed, or shame.
       Like his older brother, Ron, Dan Lafferty was brought up as a pious Mormon. “I’ve always been interested in God and the Kingdom of God,” he says. “It’s been the center of my focus since I was a young child.” And he is certain God intended for him to kill Brenda and Erica Lafferty: “It was like someone had taken me by the hand that day and led me comfortably through everything that happened. Ron had received a revelation from God that these lives were to be taken. I was the one who was supposed to do it. And if God wants something to be done, it will be done. You don’t want to offend Him by refusing to do His work.”
       These murders are shocking for a host of reasons, but no aspect of the crimes is more disturbing than Lafferty’s complete and determined absence of remorse. How could an apparently sane, avowedly pious man kill a blameless woman and her baby so viciously, without the barest flicker of emotion?
       Whence did he derive the moral justification? What filled him with such certitude? Any attempt to answer such questions must plumb those murky sectors of the heart and head that prompt most of us to believe in God — and compel an impassioned few, predictably, to carry that irrational belief to its logical end.
       There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied. As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane — as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout — there may be no more potent force than religion. When the subject of religiously inspired bloodshed comes up, many Americans immediately think of Islamic fundamentalism, which is to be expected in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. But men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since mankind began believing in deities, and extremists exist within all religions. Muhammad is not the only prophet whose words have been used to sanction barbarism; history has not lacked for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and even Buddhists who have been motivated by scripture to butcher innocents. Plenty of these religious extremists have been homegrown, corn-fed Americans.
       Faith-based violence was present long before Osama bin Laden, and it will be with us long after his demise. Religious zealots like bin Laden, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara,* and Dan Lafferty are common to every age, just as zealots of other stripes are. In any human endeavor, some fraction of its practitioners will be motivated to pursue that activity with such concentrated focus and unalloyed passion that it will consume them utterly. One has to look no further than individuals who feel compelled to devote their lives to becoming concert pianists, say, or climbing Mount Everest. For some, the province of the extreme holds an allure that’s irresistible. And a certain percentage of such fanatics will inevitably fixate on matters of the spirit.
       *Asahara is the charismatic “Holy Pope” and “Venerated Master” of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese sect that carried out a deadly 1995 attack in the Tokyo subways using sarin nerve gas. The theological tenets of Aum Shinrikyo (which means “Supreme Truth”) are drawn from Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. At the time of the subway attack, the sect’s worldwide membership was estimated to be as high as forty thousand, although it has now dropped to perhaps one thousand. According to terrorism expert Kyle B. Olson, Asahara’s followers can still “be seen in Aum-owned houses wearing bizarre electric headsets, supposedly designed to synchronize their brain waves with the cult’s leader,” who is currently incarcerated in Japan.
       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. This is no less true for the religious fanatic than for the fanatical pianist or fanatical mountain climber. As a result of his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture.
       Although the far territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals of all bents, extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing toward religious pursuits. Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God — as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest.
       It is the aim of this book to cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk. If trying to understand such people is a daunting exercise, it also seems a useful one — for what it may tell us about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith.