Through a Glass, Darkly:

Krakauer’s Dim View of Mormonism in Under the Banner of Heaven

by David King Landrith

Several recent books have pretended to divine the true nature of Islam from the rants of bin Laden. In like manner, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith pretends to distill the essence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon or LDS church) from the behavior of two murderous brothers and a handful of polygamists who once counted themselves among its members. Predictably, Krakauer serves up a stinging indictment of the LDS church. In addition, he believes that his indictment has far reaching implications about the very nature of strongly held religious belief.

In 1984, Dan and Ron Lafferty brutally murdered their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter under pretense of divine sanction. Though the Lafferty brothers had been LDS, they were excommunicated several years earlier for advocating polygamy. Nevertheless, Krakauer believes that the roots of the Laffertys’ violence stem from the LDS church’s origins. To establish this, Krakauer explores the LDS church, its early history, and the development of polygamous cults that oppose the LDS church. Specifically, Krakauer seeks to demonstrate that the fringe beliefs of polygamous cults and the mainstream beliefs of the LDS church are two sides of the same coin.

More generally, Krakauer tries to show that devout religiosity is uncomfortably close to violent fervor. Krakauer wants to use members of the LDS church as examples of how religious devotion can transform into criminal fanaticism or even terrorism, and he asserts that this is common to nearly all forms of organized religion. It is this more general claim that makes Under the Banner of Heaven interesting outside of LDS circles.

When covering the polygamist cults, Krakauer has an easy time exposing them as an unsavory lot. But when Krakauer ventures farther afield into the LDS church and its history, he has a much harder go of it. Though Krakauer weaves a fascinating tale of a church fighting to overcome its seamy past and receive mainstream acceptance, he strays much too far from the truth to provide any genuine insight. Beneath his air of utter seriousness, Krakauer is trading accuracy for sensationalism at every opportunity.

In Krakauer’s story, Mark Hoffman has a fantastically prolific career forging scandalous documents and extorting money from the LDS church: “More than 400 of these fraudulent artifacts were purchased by the LDS Church… then squirreled away in a vault to keep them from the public eye.”

In reality, Hoffman provided 393 documents to the LDS church.[*] Just 48 were forgeries.[†] Of these, only a few were embarrassing, and the LDS church covered each of them in its official magazine. Hoffman himself said of one especially controversial document, “It surprised me a bit that the Church didn’t buy it up quick[ly] and stash it away somewhere….”

In Krakauer’s story, LDS leaders mobilize blindly obedient minions for their pet political causes.


[*] The LDS church catalogued these during Hoffman’s trial for murder.

[†] The remaining 345 were authentic court records that the LDS church returned to their respective jurisdictions.

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In reality, church members must expressly approve any edict before it is binding on the entire church.[‡] Moreover, LDS leaders have seldom influenced their followers’ political views. President Heber Grant counseled members to support prohibition, and President Joshua Clark counseled members to oppose FDR’s re-election, yet Utah overwhelmingly voted to repeal prohibition and re-elect Roosevelt.

In Krakauer’s story, Joseph Smith’s bodyguard, Orrin Rockwell, tries to assassinate Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs and is never brought to justice.

In reality, nobody knows who shot Boggs. Rockwell was arrested for it, held for months without being charged, and finally released because there was not enough evidence to indict.

In Krakauer’s story, Brigham Young all but orders the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and later (in 1884) produces a copy of a letter of questionable authenticity to cover his tail.

In reality, Young copied his letters by pressing them into books of onionskin paper, where the moisture of the fresh ink created a mirror image of the letter. In this fashion, contemporaneous copies of his correspondence were preserved in bound volumes. Young’s letter ordering a peaceful resolution to the Mountain Meadows standoff appears in exactly the correct sequence for the date on which he wrote it. This contemporaneous copy was well known before 1884; In fact, it was sighted at the John Lee trials in the 1870s.[§]

In Krakauer’s story, LDS President John Taylor secretly ordains Lorin Woolley to ensure polygamy’s survival regardless of LDS church actions. Krakauer parenthetically quips, “the authenticity [of this episode] has been angrily disputed by LDS General Authorities ever since.”

In reality, credible historians reject this story. No contemporary sources corroborate it. Woolley himself is its only source, and he waited 39 years, until all possible witnesses were dead, to mention it. At other times, Woolley claimed to be a spy for the U.S. Secret Service, to have followed LDS leaders for years, to have discovered recent polygamous marriages of President Heber Grant and Apostle James Talmage, and to have been ordained an apostle by Brigham Young when he was 13. Each of these claims is a sheer fabrication. All of this bothers Krakauer not at all: He is content to repeat Woolley’s yarn without qualification.

Krakauer’s story belies the notion that truth is stranger than fiction and showcases Krakauer’s uncanny talent for adding interesting detail to otherwise mundane historical events. The result is generally good reading, but Krakauer exposes the poverty of his scholarship by riddling his story with simple mistakes and mangling his sources.

For example, Krakauer states that a former employer swore out a warrant against young Joseph Smith. In reality, it was Peter Bridgeman, the nephew of Smith’s employer’s wife, who swore out the warrant. Smith never worked for Bridgeman.


[‡] The LDS church calls this the principal of common consent. Every church leader, including Joseph Smith, has operated according to this principle.

[§] John ­Lee was found guilty of capital murder for participating in the Mountain Meadows Massacre in spite of having been pardoned by President James Buchanan.

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Krakauer also states that Nathan Tanner “famously declared” that “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” To be precise, Tanner quoted Elaine Cannon to read, “When the Prophet speaks,… the debate is over,” in an entirely different context. Tanner never actually declared this, much less famously declared it.

Moreover, Krakauer quotes Brigham Young referring to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, “Vengeance is mine, and I have taken a little.” Krakauer adds emphasis but neglects to say so, implying that Young himself claimed vengeance. If Young actually said this, then it was a proposed reading for the Mountain Meadows monument, implying that the Lord had taken some vengeance; i.e., after decades of suffering murder, rape, and pillage at the hands of ferocious mobs, Mormons had finally been allowed to strike back at their tormenters.

Krakauer even botches the names of his sources. For example, he sites Ken Anderson’s article “The Magi of the Great Salt Lake” mistakenly as “The Magic of the Great Salt Lake” (emphasis added). One might chalk this up to sloppy editing if Krakauer’s work were not so thoroughly slipshod.

Krakauer’s footnotes demonstrate that he lacks even a perfunctory grasp of his subject matter. In them, he says that all fifteen leaders of the LDS Church are Apostles and serve for life;[**] that the Old Testament mentions an Onias from the 3rd century BC;[††] that a Laben from the 7th century BC appears in both the Book of Mormon and Old Testament;[‡‡] that the LDS dietary code prohibits caffeine, masturbation, or premarital sex.[§§] All of this is simply and demonstrably incorrect.

In addition to his superficial research and deficient background knowledge, Krakauer’s basic assumptions are bankrupt. Krakauer claims that, “Dissent isn’t tolerated [among the LDS]. Questioning the edicts of religious authorities is viewed as a subversive act that undermines faith.” Krakauer­ envisions a dictatorial church forcing out members who go beyond its sanitized caricature of LDS history—which in practice amounts to all but about 12,000,000 of its members.

The simple, boring truth of the matter is that the LDS church does not dictate historical beliefs. Nor would its members blindly follow. Many active, believing Mormons recognize Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (Krakauer’s key source) as a masterpiece and a landmark work. They think highly of D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View.[***] They have read Krakauer’s other secondary sources and many more besides. To be sure, Mormon history is a hobby more popular within Mormonism than without. (The author of this review purchased his copy of No Man Knows My History at the Brigham Young


[**] The Apostles and the President of the church (13 of the 15 men to whom Krakauer is referring) serve for life. The President’s counselors (2 of the 15 men) need not be Apostles, and they serve as counselors to the President only during his life (though in practice the counselors often are Apostles, and the succeeding President often elects to re-appoint them).

[††] The texts of the Old Testament do not purport to cover any period later than the 4th century BC.

[‡‡] The Biblical Laben was contemporary with the ancient Patriarch Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Laben in The Book of Mormon lived in Jerusalem during the reign of Zedekiah, ca. 600 BC.

[§§] The LDS church prohibits premarital sex and masturbation, but it does not prohibit caffeine at all. “The Word of Wisdom,” the LDS dietary code, mentions none of these.

[***] Ironically, Quinn himself does not like No Man Knows My History; he finds it polemical and agenda driven.

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University Book Store, though Krakauer assures his reader that the LDS church would never countenance the sale of real history in a church-owned venue.)

In view of Krakauer’s abundant blunders, it is quite remarkable that his book has been generally well received. Whether from ignorance or bias, reviewer after reviewer (Hilary Spurling in The Telegraph, Douglas Kennedy in The Independent, Edward Morris in BookPage.com, and many others) failed to detect even the slightest defect in Krakauer’s story.[†††] As a matter of fact, his book is lowbrow enough to raise real questions about the qualifications of those who gave it passable reviews.

And Krakauer’s book is distressingly lowbrow. In an attempt to offer two contrasting assessments of religion, Krakauer pits William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience against Bertrand Russell’s “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” James and Russell are two of the foremost minds of the modern era. But James’s work is a serious contribution to epistemology, while Russell intended his very clever, if sarcastic, essay for popular consumption. In the more than 70 books that Russell published during his lifetime, not one seriously addressed religion. Apparently, Krakauer does not know the difference, and he does a disservice to both of these men by putting quotes from these works on equal footing.

At other times, Krakauer’s prose reads like parody. When Krakauer finally describes the Lafferty murders, even McDonald’s is lit by a “cruel florescent glare.” His account of the Laffertys’ tour of polygamous cults in an Impala reads like copy from an old Chevrolet ad.

Thus far, one might suppose that Krakauer is merely lazy or incompetent. But his selective use of sources suggests a baser motive. For example, in his chapters on Joseph Smith, Krakauer dutifully summarizes Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, departing only when he can lift more lurid material from Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Since Quinn liberally quotes his sources and then comments on their reliability, Krakauer ends up using Quinn out of context to sensationalize his narrative with material that Brodie intentionally excluded because of reliability. Unless he intends to deceive his reader, it is difficult to understand why Krakauer would so flagrantly use marginal sources to inflate the narrative.

Also, Krakauer goes to great length to document the unbridled welfare fraud, physical abuse, sexual molestation, and incest that occur in polygamous cults. But Krakauer carefully avoids the question of whether early Mormons committed such crimes. Make no mistake: They did not. Early Mormonism bore little resemblance to the practices of polygamous cults. When the LDS church sanctioned polygamy, fewer than 1 in 8 members actually practiced it. And the LDS church had surprisingly progressive views on women’s rights for the time. Utah readily permitted women to divorce their husbands and remarry if they chose. Utah was the first state to elect a woman (Martha Cannon) to its state Senate.[‡‡‡] Utah was the second state or territory to allow women to vote. LDS women were among the first women from the west to attend colleges in the east. Physical abuse, sexual molestation, and incest were un-


[†††] This is troubling because print reviews help to determine what constitutes a viable secondary source. Consequently, their shoddy work legitimizes future hatchet jobs by giving credence to those of the past.

[‡‡‡] Cannon was a polygamous wife and mother with degrees in chemistry (University of Deseret), medicine (University of Michigan), pharmaceuticals (University of Pennsylvania), and oratory (National School of Elocution and Oratory).

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heard of. Krakauer’s silence on these issues implies otherwise, and so it will not do to claim that Krakauer’s story is evenhanded.

Sadly, Krakauer tends to smear those who identify problems with his story. For example, Richard Turley, managing director of the LDS Church History Department, documented several key errors in Under the Banner of Heaven. In his response to Turley, Krakauer neither engages Turley’s arguments nor attempts to defend his own work. Instead, Krakauer grandstands, “It saddens me that Elder Turley… elected to regard my book in such a reductionist light.” This is a startling statement: Krakauer’s dismissal of “reductionist” criticism appears to indicate that he attributes some overarching validity to his conclusions independent of the truth of their component elements. The remainder of Krakauer’s response amounts to little more than a condescending harangue about LDS intolerance.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Krakauer misrepresents the LDS church nearly every time he mentions it. Ostensibly, he is trying to provide some insight into its history and operations, but he is wrong on the facts; he mangles his sources; and he lacks even rudimentary background knowledge. Gullible readers and reviewers notwithstanding, Krakauer’s work does not bear scrutiny.

Krakauer’s books allure readers by pretending to provide juicy, inside accounts of lesser-known subjects, and he has built his reputation treating obscure topics resistant to critical treatment by a larger audience. At last, in Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer confronts a well-known body of historical data, and the result is troubling: He is easily shown to barrage his audience with half-baked history, out-and-out fabrications, slipshod research, lowbrow commentary, and conventional anti-religious prejudices. Nevertheless, Krakauer avoids directly insulting his reader by adopting a candid and affable writing style.

Traditional bigotry has always been best represented by charismatic figures writing compelling prose that mixes outright lies with sweeping generalizations from shockingly small samples. This formula marshals anecdotal evidence alongside pseudo-science and pseudo-history to subjugate women, bully minorities, and malign religions. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith falls squarely within this tradition.

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