Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

A story of violent faith, from the beginnings of Mormonism to some of its modern-day repercussions.

What is Under the Banner of Heaven about?

Under the Banner of Heaven begins in 1984 with a murder. In truth, this doesn’t seem a strong enough word for the execution of Brenda and Erica Lafferty in their own home.

Suspicion falls on the brothers-in-law of the murdered mother and child. Disturbingly, Ron and Dan Lafferty claim God told them to carry out the killings in his name.

It’s a compelling start to Krakauer’s book but really, this is a history of fundamental Mormonism. It’s easy to think of religious extremism as an external threat (i.e., Islam). Krakauer shows the roots of home-grown American religion are also steeped in violence.

He illustrates this through the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He covers its creation in the 1820s, its persecution, and its continued struggles within and against the modern world.

As religions go, Mormonism seems made for Krakauer’s brand of investigative journalism. Polygamy is a huge source of tension within the church’s various sects and split-offs. However, Krakauer uncovers other more troubling allegations, including incest, paedophilia and abuse.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a fascinating book told in a compelling style. However, its stark and cynical subject matter is no light read.

“Between 1840 and 1844 God instructed the prophet to marry some forty women. Most were shocked and revolted when Joseph revealed what the Lord had in mind for them. Several were still pubescent girls, such as fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball.”

Under the Banner of Heaven

Is it similar to Krakauer’s other books?

Krakauer’s best known book is Into the Wild (later a film), which tells the story of Chris McCandless’s tragic trip through Alaska. He’s written countless articles and books, including Into Thin Air.

Krakauer often focuses on individuals. Here, the the history of Mormonism is the unifying thread. This is Krakauer’s attempt to understand why Brenda and Erica Lafferty were murdered in 1984. In doing so, he shows how the roots of the religion are culpable in their deaths.

This method and motivation chime with Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Krakauer seems drawn to why things happen the way they do.

This is a divisive book. Krakauer even reproduces (and answers) some of the main criticisms. It’s also eye-opening. Myths of the American frontier rarely touch on the Mountain Meadow massacre, for instance. 120 men, women and children died on that occasion. Like Brenda and Erica Lafferty, they died under the cover of divine might.


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer

Quoted edition published by Pan Books, 2011

Other books like Under the Banner of Heaven
  • Into the Wild, Into Thin Air (same author)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (religious extremism, fascism, misogyny)
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, by John Gray (religious extremism)
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (history, social history)
  • Casino, by Nicholas Pileggi (true-life, investigative journalism)

Picture credit: James Coleman