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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith Cover

ISBN13: 9780385509510
ISBN10: 0385509510
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. In his prologue, Jon Krakauer writes that the aim of his book is to “cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk,” which he concedes is a daunting but useful task for what it may tell us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” [p. XXIII]. What does the book reveal about fanatics such as Ron and Dan Lafferty? What does it reveal about brutality and faith and the connections between them?

2. Why does Krakauer move back and forth between Mormon history and contemporary events? What are the connections between the beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his followers in the nineteenth century and the behavior of people like Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brian David Mitchell, and others in the twentieth?

3. Prosecutor David Leavitt argued that “People in the state of Utah simply do not understand, and have not understood for fifty years, the devastating effect that the practice of polygamy has on young girls in our society” [p. 24]. How does polygamy affect young girls? Is it, as Leavitt claims, pedophilia plain and simple?

4. Joseph Smith claimed that the doctrine of polygamy was divinely inspired. What earthly reasons might also explain Smiths attraction to having plural wives?

5. When Krakauer asks Dan Lafferty if he has considered the parallels between himself and Osama bin Laden, Dan asserts that bin Laden is a “child of the Devil” and that the hijackers were “following a false prophet,” whereas he is following a true prophet [p. 321]. No doubt, bin Laden would say much the same of Lafferty. How are Dan Lafferty and Osama bin Laden alike? In what ways are all religious fundamentalists alike?

6. Krakauer asks: “if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isnt everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?” [p. 297] Given the nature of, and motive for, the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her child, should Ron Lafferty be considered mentally ill? If so, should all others who “talk to God” or receive revelations—a central tenant of Mormonism—also be considered mentally ill? What would the legal ramifications be of such a shift in thought?

7. Krakauer begins part III with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who asserts that “every single bit of progress

in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world” [p. 191]. Is this a fair and accurate statement? What historical examples support it? What improvements in humane feeling and social justice has the Mormon church opposed?

8. How are mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons likely to react to Krakauers book?

9. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven explores the tensions between freedom of religion and governmental authority. How should these tensions be resolved? How can the state allow religious freedom to those who place obedience to Gods will above obedience to secular laws?

10. Joseph Smith called himself “a second Mohammed,” and Krakauer quotes George Arbaugh who suggests that Mormonisms “aggressive theocratic claims, political aspirations, and use of force, make it akin to Islam” [p. 102]. What other similarities exist between the Mormon and Islamic faiths?

11. How should Joseph Smith be understood: as a delusional narcissist, a con man, or “an authentic religious genius” [p. 55], as Harold Bloom claims?

12. Krakauer suggests that much of John Wesley Powells book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, particularly his account of his dealings with the Shivwit Indians, should be regarded with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” and that it embellishes and omits important facts [p. 245]. Is Krakauer himself a trustworthy guide to the events he describes in Under the Banner of Heaven? Are his writing and his judgments fair and reasonable? What makes them so?

13. What patterns emerge from looking at Mormon history? What do events like the Mountain Meadow massacre and the violence between Mormons and gentiles in Missouri and Illinois suggest about the nature of Mormonism? Have Mormons been more often the perpetrators or the victims of violence?

14. At the very end of the book, former Mormon fundamentalist DeLoy Bateman says that while the Mormon fundamentalists who live within Colorado City may be happier than those who live outside it, he believes that “some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself” [p. 334]. Why does Krakauer end the book this way? In what ways are Mormons not free to think for themselves? Is such freedom more important than happiness?

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Amber Black, June 5, 2013 (view all comments by Amber Black)
Despite being a little outdated (mainly due to the massive upheaval in the FLDS in recent years), the history of these groups has not changed since 2003-2004. I found this to be a good primer on the beliefs and history of the LDS and FLDS churches, especially from a non-LDS perspective. In most respects, I found it to be a fairly balanced and well-researched treatise on the topic, despite the scathing review from Elder Turley of the mainline LDS church reproduced in the appendix. Krakauer's response was levelheaded and reflected some of my own views on the Mormon leadership's stance towards willful obfuscation and ignorance. I do not feel like this book reflected a negative view of most mainline Mormons at all, in fact, my enhanced understanding of their beliefs only helps me appreciate their religious point-of-view more fully. I am offended by the accusation of Elder Turley that I am one of those "gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook," just because I do not buy the LDS story hook, line, and sinker.

If you read this hoping for true crime, you will be fairly disappointed. Rather it takes an outrageous crime and tries to put it in the perspective of history, social forces, family drama, and religious fanaticism. There is no discussion of crime scene evidence or victim's perspective or any of the other typical trappings of the true crime genre.

The narrative does meander a bit and some parts did not flow well (the Elizabeth Smart section in particular seemed to come from nowhere and have little relevance later). Besides that, this is an engrossing study of Mormon Fundamentalism and Mormon history from the perspective of an outsider with a respectful and balanced view. I value outsider perspectives as much as perspectives from the faithful for the well-rounded view they advance, but there seem woeful few modern, non-academic Mormon histories written by someone with no stake in the LDS or FLDS (either as an active or excommunicated member, or some raised in the religion). While the LDS leadership may not like it, I think it's important to remember no one operates in a vacuum, religious groups least of all.
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Ralph Hubele, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Ralph Hubele)
Insightful, could apply to most religions and religious zealots in the world.
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Product Details

Krakauer, Jon
Doubleday Books
Krakauer, Jon
New York
United States - 20th Century (1945 to present)
Sociology of Religion
Mormon fundamentalism.
Christianity - Mormonism
Murder - General
Religious fanaticism
Christianity - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Da
United States - 20th Century (1945 to 2000)
Christianity - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saomts (
Christianity - Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (
United States - 20th Century
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
July 15, 2003
Grade Level:
9.56x6.58x1.28 in. 1.54 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Crime » True Crime
History and Social Science » Current Affairs » General
History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General
Religion » Christianity » Featured Titles
Religion » Christianity » Mormon » Controversial Literature
Religion » Christianity » Mormon » Mormonism
Religion » Christianity » Mormonism
Religion » Western Religions » American Religion

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.50 In Stock
Product details 400 pages Doubleday Books - English 9780385509510 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[T]old with raw narrative force and tight focus....Krakauer lays the portent on beautifully, building his tales carefully from the ground up until they irresistibly, spookily combust."
"Review" by , "Marvelous....A departure from Into Thin Air and Into the Wild...but every bit as engrossing."
"Review" by , "Terrifying....Startling....Mov[es] deftly between past and present [and] provides a fascinating glimpse of the church today."
"Review" by , "[A] probing narrative....[Krakauer's] insightful book brings readers closer to an understanding of [the Mormon] religion....[A] first-rate work of nonfiction from one of our most intrepid reporters."
"Review" by , "In collecting evidence, Mr. Krakauer ventures out to a lunatic fringe of polygamous self-appointed prophets....[T]his book provides more voyeuristic astonishment than curiosity or understanding."
"Review" by , "Well-researched and evenhanded....Thought-provoking."
"Synopsis" by , Includes bibliographical references (p. [351]-358) and index.
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