Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer


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

What is Under the Banner of Heaven about?

When Brenda Lafferty is killed at home along with her infant daughter, suspicion falls on her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan. Far from denying it, the brothers claim God told them to carry out the killings in his name.

It’s a disturbing start to Krakauer’s book, which is a history of the more extreme branches of Mormonism. It’s easy to think of religious extremism as an external threat (i.e., Islam), but Krakauer reveals 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 – the Mormons. The book 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. 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 like Krakauer’s other books?

Krakauer’s best known book is Into the Wild, which follows Chris McCandless’s fascinating but fateful trip into Alaska. Other books include Into Thin Air, an eye-witness account of the Everest tragedy.

Krakauer often focuses on individuals to unpack larger stories and understand why things happen the way they do.

Here, the the history of Mormonism is the unifying thread. But it’s also 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.

As you’d expect, this is a divisive book – though Krakauer even reproduces (and answers) some of the main criticisms in a section at the back. It’s also eye-opening. Myths of the American frontier rarely touch on the Mountain Meadow massacre, for instance, which saw 120 men, women and children killed. 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

What to read or watch next
  • Into the Wild, Into Thin Air (same author)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (religious extremism, fascism, misogyny)
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (religious extremism)
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (history, social history)
  • Fake History (how politics and privilege rewrite the past)
  • Casino (true-life, investigative journalism)
  • The Staircase (true crime)

Picture credit: The Haughty Culturist