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Volume 16, Issue 1: Ex Libris

Book Reviews

Woelke Leithart

Under the Banner of Heaven
by Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, 2003

Since September 11, there have been innumerable articles on religious extremism, because this of course was intimately tied up with the events of that day. Islam has received most of the press, and justifiably so, but there are other religions that occasionally come up. One such religion with a violent background eerily similar to that of Islam is Mormonism. And this is the subject of Jon Krakauer's latest book, Under the Banner of Heaven.

To Christians, and especially those of us who live in the Western United States, Mormonism is not something that can be ignored. While the specific sects focused on in this book are not enormous, the fact is that there are eleven million Mormons worldwide, and that number is growing. In his book Krakauer explores the history of Mormonism, focusing especially on two things: its violent past, and its polygamous past. He draws the two threads together to show how modern fundamentalist Mormons use their religion to justify both polygamy and murder.
Banner of Heaven chronicles the story of Mormonism from its beginnings in upstate New York by Joseph Smith. He follows the Mormons from New York to Missouri, where Joseph Smith was killed by a mob of angry locals. Krakauer continues the Mormon story to Utah, where Brigham Young led the sect. There, they finally took up Smith's mandate of polygamy, or plural marriage. Though initially surprised by the doctrine, the Mormons hung tenaciously to it when pressed. Several U.S. Presidents, Krakauer relates, saw the Utah territory as a thorn in their side, at least partly because of the polygamy problem. It was not until 1890, when the federal government threatened to seize all of the sect's property, that the Mormon prophet at that time received a "revelation from God" that polygamy was not right. "But it did not end polygamy," writes Krakauer. "It merely drove it underground."
The polygamous issue is the chief dividing line between fundamentalist Mormons and the mainline Latter Day Saints (as they prefer to be known). The fundamentalists still hold to Joseph Smith's original doctrine, and the others say that future revelation has superceded that. Though we Christians, living in imitation of the marriage of Christ and His Church, reject polygamy, it is interesting that the Mormon fundamentalists realize that the moral relativists have no case against it. One former wife of a man who was polygamous defends her 14-year old daughter's marriage to her former husband, the girl's stepfather: "They are prosecuting Tom [Green] on nineteenth-century morals. Now, who cares who sleeps with who? They are all consenting adults. Right now, there are lesbians, homosexuals, and single people living together all the time."1
Unlike the Mormons, Krakauer is not shy about portraying the faults of the religion. Though he avoids saying that Joseph Smith made the entire religion up out of his head, he doesn't hide the fact that Smith was convicted of fraud before he ever wrote the Book of Mormon. He doesn't gloss over the horrifying Mountain Meadows massacre, where Mormons slaughtered 120 settlers traveling West, and then blamed it on the local Indians. He is quick to say good things about most Mormon people, who he portrays as decent, hard-working, average Americans, but he also points out several times that the LDS leadership deliberately collects potentially damaging documents and stores them where scholars can't get at them.
One of the nicest things about Banner of Heaven, which I would be remiss in leaving out, is its maps. A book on history must contain at least a few maps, and the better the maps, the better the reader can understand. Krakauer has been very good about this before; his astounding book on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster contains a wonderful and helpful map of the climb up the world's highest mountain. Maps detailing valleys in Utah where important Mormon settlements are located or the journey of Mormonism across the country fill this book's pages.
Under the Banner of Heaven really is a fascinating book, and it covers far more in its pages than I have space to on this one. It stumbles at the end, as Krakauer explains his own agnostic leanings. But as an introduction into the story of Mormonism and its effects today, I would recommend this book. Krakauer is a journalist by trade. He does a terrific job of telling the story of Mormonism, interspersing stories about its older history with its more recent past in Utah. I found the story simultaneously fascinating and sad. Fascinating because it is a look into the heart of a fairly secretive religion (e.g., nonbelievers, or Gentiles, are not permitted to enter Mormon temples). Sad because there are millions of people who believe these lies, and many of them are laughably bad lies.
Mormonism is a scary thing, if only because of its deceptive similarity to the Christian faith, but fundamentalist Mormonism is scarier still. It shows all too clearly the dangers inherent in having men decide what direct communication from God is. After all, if we decide what God says, then we can justify anything. And that is what the fundamentalist Mormons do.

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