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Apparently, it’s review week.

I want to start out by saying that I do not believe in God. It’s not that I don’t want to or do want to. That ends up being immaterial in matters of faith. I don’t have faith. I need proof, which might be the ultimate antithesis to faith when lines are drawn. So, there’s that. I mention this because Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer is a book about faith. What creates it, what drives it, and what it means to those who have it, what having faith will drive people to do.

I first came across Under the Banner of Heaven approximately five years ago. I was taking a philosophy class at college and the book became mandatory reading. I didn’t read it. Fair or not, I did get an A in the class but I was more concerned with battling mono and bipolar disorder, so maybe priorities are overrated. Buying the book was the closest I’d get for a few years. The book has always been at the top of my “must read” list, partially because it’s so fascinating but also how well written it is.

Part of me thinks an apt name is a “history of violence”, since essentially, that’s what the Mormons got, except that tends to be a good title for most of human history. Ever since their inception, their history is fraught with death and prejudice. Some of it is earned, but much of it is fear and hatred, the same story that plays out in X-Men over and over. Not that there’s evidence to suggest Mormons are much more tolerant, they aren’t. In reality, there isn’t anything more fundamentally human or American that self entitlement and looking down at others. “Divine entitlement” the Mormons felt vs the “manifest Destiny” of America. It’s all arrogance, but that’s really the nature of Americans,  not the gilded, self-satisfying bile we tell ourselves about pride and patriotism. Still, to understand the crux of the book, a murder in 1984, Krakauer rightly assumes the needs to know a little about the history that spawned it.

  • Part I. Essentially the origins and genesis of Mormons, studying Joseph Smith’s life up to the inception of the LDS sect.
  • Part II. A  short history of the violence against Mormons, the splinter groups and fundamentalists, and the Lafferty family ties to that history and fundamentalists.
  • Part III. Here the times of Brigham Young is detailed, discussing the expansion of the United States and the conflicts that ensued, as well as the official rise and fall of polygamy within the church.
  • Part IV. In detail the follow up to events of the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty are discussed, as well as how the violent history of Mormons folds together.

The book itself is an interwoven pattern of the history of Mormons and their creator, Joseph Smith, and their faith. Reading as part historical text and research paper, Under the Banner of Heaven grasps the curiosity of readers and tries its hardest not to let go. The genesis of Mormons is interspersed with tales of their positives and negatives, ranging from their strong adherence to order and family to the cruelty they can inflict on one another. Cruelty that sometimes feels inhuman in the strangest of ways but at the same time, almost a logical extension of humanity, as twists as it appears.

Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, have the (I think) unique status of being a recent religion. That means it has to bear the scrutiny and pressures of modern amenities like the printing press (used to basically start the religion) and a propensity to record every action in a way that Christianity and Muslims don’t have to worry about. I guess in that regard, the fact that Mormons comprise the fastest growing religion in the world says something about them.

One of the striking aspects of this book are how recent many of the tales of horror are. A girl is kidnapped by fundamentalists and forced to marry at 14. That happened in 2002. On the other hand, an annual ceremony of pageantry and showmanship acts as a gathering and pilgrimage to “the Hill Cumorah Pageant: America’s Witness for Christ” where Mormons gather and spend quality time as a community. Plus, one can’t really argue with Brigham Young University’s reputation.

One facet of the book that becomes hard to follow is the names. Krakauer has a habit introducing many people at once and letting the context take care of the rest. However, this becomes problematic because he tends to switch between persons on interest. He discusses Joseph Smith in detail, but people such as the Prophet Onais (formerly Robert Crossfield) and John Koyle does become confusing.

The other aspect of the book that brings me concern, oddly enough, manifests in the details. Each account is precise and detailed step by step. Despite the emotional heat of many of these moments, these accounts bare incredible detail. Strictly speaking, these should be the times when details are scarce and ambiguity reigns. This leads me to suspect the authenticity of the accounts. Perhaps when the details occur doesn’t matter, only that the general facts are agreed upon.

Besides the historical data provided, the words chosen to describe these acts are intriguing. Often, Krakauer does merely state the evidence impartially but uses words that imply partiality, such as “justice,” (referring to Mormon retribution for persecution) “incorruptible integrity” (when referring to a man against polygamy), and “cronies” (referring to Brigham Young’s disciples and allies) This may not be a flaw, but certainly the terminology comes with connotations spread beyond simple academic premises. None of these words are technically wrong or inaccurate, but they do come with passion and connotations beyond mere academia. They influence how a reader perceives the information. If the vast majority of the book was written this way, that becomes less of an issue, but the chosen instances do stick out. However, he does so for both sides of the argument, those shedding Mormons in both positive and negative lights. This might be the best way to look at things, as this is a book meant to inform, certainly, but also to keep the readers attention, as opposed to a passionless research paper that tries to offend no one. Still, the pages illicit emotional responses, both positive and negative, for and against the Mormons. These are not unsympathetic people.

I’m not here to judge Mormons or actions for or against them. Neither is Under the Banner of Heaven. Arguments for and against are clearly stated, often without passion. These are the facts of the case, sometimes cloaked in truths. This book is a stunningly detailed, well written account of their past and present. If you have the time to read a 367 page book and actually consider what Under the Banner of Heaven is discussing, the power of faith and the susceptibility of humans to such faith, it’s worth picking up.  This isn’t a quick or easy read. I would expect to take a week or two to read it, maybe less. Certainly two or three chapters a day seems a reasonable pace for the density. In hindsight, it is no wonder this book was required reading in a philosophy class. The subject makes the reader think and consider. Definitely recommended as an intellectual exercise.

Faith transcends logic by nature. This is the history that shaped a faith. Certainly, the modernity of Mormons makes them open to more scorn that Christians who cover their origins in a haze of poor record keeping and time. Still, one thing leads to another. This is a book about faith and what it drives people to do. The Mormons are no worse than Christians, in their actions or believes, any more than anyone else. Under the Banner of Heaven is a powerful examination of the human existence, even if you don’t believe in God or Christ.