Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

Krakauer, John. 2003. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Random House, Inc. New York.

When I first began reading, I thought the whole book would be about the Lafferty Brothers and the tragic crimes they committed against their own family and humanity. The introduction sets the stage well, giving a brief glimpse into the murders of an innocent wife and her daughter by mormon fundamentalists who believed they were following the commandments of God. This storyline turned out to be only a portion of the book, however. Krakauer did an excellent job of telling the story of the Lafferty murders and also attempts to provide the reader with some LDS history as context for the story.

The majority of the book was Krakauer giving a condensed and unapologetic history of the LDS church. However, Krakauer is a much better writer than he is a historian. The book is woefully short on footnotes and references for the many quotes and stories he uses. While I am not enough of an LDS historian myself to know the accuracy of the facts, it certainly would have been more convincing with footnotes.

I understand, however, that it was not Krakauer’s intent to write a history book. Krakauer’s largest contribution with this book is the primary sources he cites. He interviews Dan Lafferty, one of the brothers convicted of murder, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a religious fanatic. He also interviews several other mormon fundamentalists who provide interesting material. The history is included to provide context for the modern case studies.
Ultimately, I found myself wishing for more info about the Lafferty’s and less of Krakauer’s history of the church.

But I am also not Krakauer’s target audience. As a lifelong member of the church, I was already well familiar with much of the church history he provided. At times, I found the book following tangents and felt that Krakauer failed to connect all the dots for less sophisticated readers (like myself). On multiple occasions, I found myself wondering “why is this chapter in the book?” Ultimately, while I don’t trust Krakauer as a historian and I believe he paints an extremely pessimistic picture of the LDS faith, I did enjoy reading the book. It was interesting to read how he interprets LDS history, which aspects of LDS history he chose to include, and his thoughts regarding how LDS history contributed to the mindset of the Lafferty Brothers.

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