I’ve always been interested in the things people believe and why they believe them. Always. But about a year ago I first read a book that not only stirred my curiosity, my determination to look at belief more closely, but also opened up a new dimension of that interest that I had not really thought much about before. That was the question of what belief leads people – as individuals and as groups – to do. It wasn’t the only thing that emphasized this practical aspect of belief in my mind. Certainly, the events of September 11, 2001, made a lot of people aware that beliefs have practical consequences in the real world in a way that they had not thought about before. But 9/11 was such an overwhelming event that I had tried not to plunge too deeply into its implications, including the particular issue of belief and action.
When I read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Random House, 2003), however, I realized that I could not ignore that aspect of belief. The actions that people undertake in the name of what they believe are an integral part of the examination of belief, belief systems, and the people who hold them. Belief isn’t only, or even mostly, internal. Everyone’s actions, every day, depend on what they believe, how strong their beliefs are, and how they think others feel about their beliefs. And, like it or not, our actions affect the lives of others, and others’ actions affect our lives every single day.
In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer looks at the story of how belief impacted the lives of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, a young mother and her infant daughter, when two of her brothers-in-law came to believe that God was sending them revelations, including the instructions to kill Brenda and Erica. This is, of course, an extreme example of the impact of belief on individuals, but the reality is that sometimes belief leads people to do extreme things. That horrible 1984 case is, in turn, a jumping-off point for Krakauer’s examination of various offshoots of the Mormon faith which have not abandoned the early beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as introduced by the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith. These doctrines include plural marriage and blood atonement, doctrines that the official Mormon church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, has long since officially abandoned and proscribed. Included in these offshoots are the so-called “Mormon fundamentalist” sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the United Effort Plan (UEP) or FLDS, as well as individual fundamentalist believers such as Brian David Mitchell, also known as Immanuel David Isaiah, who currently stands accused of the widely-reported kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in Utah in 2002. Krakauer also looks at some of the events that such beliefs led to during the early years of what grew into the official church, when such beliefs were still openly held and practiced. Krakauer’s main examples of this aspect of the story are the events surrounding the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and the issues and events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath.
Other adherents to earlier, now mostly abandoned, doctrines of Mormonism included Ron and Dan Lafferty, Brenda and Erica Lafferty’s murderers. Raised in orthodox Mormonism, the Lafferty brothers came to accept the idea that the mainstream church had been wrong in abandoning plural marriage, blood atonement, and other doctrines and practices that the orthodox church currently denies. It is a story of what deeply held faith can lead people to do. Krakauer’s account of this story is a fascinating, meticulously researched, and well-written account that reads like a novel, one in which the flashbacks enhance rather than detract from the story.
Some might argue that the story Krakauer tells is really simply a story of religious belief used as a tool for rationalizing what these particular individuals chose to do in pursuit of their goals, or in revenge for the frustration of their goals, when they knew that their actions would violate the most deeply-held mores of the culture in which they were living. Indeed, one way of interpreting the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty is that when they were faced with someone who was standing in the way of their desire to practice polygamy, they used archaic religious doctrines from their own religious upbringing to justify the murder of their sister-in-law and niece, who they saw as frustrating their wishes. After all, it was Brenda Lafferty who urged Ron’s wife to leave him over his desire to practice polygamy. Further, she was the one wife, out of all the brothers’ spouses, who would not submit to their excursions into polygamous practice.
In truth, however, that seems a bit too Byzantine an explanation to be the whole truth. Every day, people get mad at others who stand in the way of their desires. And every day, people commit violent acts to remove those obstacles. Most of these people do not feel the need to fall back on some sort of religious belief system to justify their actions, to themselves or to others. That sort of long way around seems to me to be just too much work. In addition, the Lafferty brothers had a history of serious study of the doctrines they claimed as the reason for their crimes. It isn’t as if they killed Brenda and Erica and then said, as an afterthought, "Oh, and by the way, God told us to do it."
Another way to look at this story, one that Krakauer specifically brings up in the course of his book, is that Ron Lafferty, in claiming to receive revelations and, to a lesser extent Dan, in helping him to carry those revelations out, were victims of a delusion. Ron’s defense tried to use that argument in an insanity defense. However, one of the witnesses in Ron’s trial, Dr. Noel Gardner, a psychiatrist, testified that holding unusual religious beliefs does not necessarily mean that the person holding those beliefs is delusional. Gardner also testified that while Ron Lafferty might well fit the profile for one suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, most self-proclaimed prophets – including the founders of most major world religions – could be classed this way, and that very few of them were murderers. Consequently, it seems to me that one must finally conclude, at least on the basis of the information presented in Krakauer’s book, that Ron and Dan Lafferty were not mentally ill in a clinical sense, really believed that they were receiving revelations from God, and that their actions in killing Brenda and Erica Lafferty stemmed directly from, and were justified in their minds, by the beliefs they held.
The Laffertys' story is a fascinating one, even if only in the same sense that any disaster is fascinating. The wider story the books tells of the birth, growth, and schism of a new religious movement and its offshoots is equally interesting. I would be willing to wager that most Americans have no idea that there is an entire town in the Arizona desert, north of the Grand Canyon and near the Utah border, that lives a strictly religious, polygamous, lifestyle led by a prophet who wields near-total control over the lives of the town’s citizens, to the extent of reassigning the wives of apostates to other men. Even paying attention to such issues, I did not know about this particular group until I read Krakauer’s book. Likewise, I did not realize until reading this book that experts estimate of the number of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists at between thirty and one hundred thousand. Krakauer’s inclusion of the information about these groups serve as an illustration of the sort of schisms that have split believers in Joseph Smith’s teachings into widely diverse groups. This information also shows one of the sources of encouragement the Lafferty brothers might have had in their own split from the orthodox Mormonism of their upbringing.
Another aspect of Krakauer’s book that interests me is the fact that the mainstream Mormon church had problems with it, so much so that they denounced it publicly. I suspect that a huge part of what the Salt Lake church took issue with was Krakauer’s persistence in calling the folks who still believe in and practice things like polygamy and blood atonement “fundamentalist Mormons.” The mainstream church insists that there is no such thing as a fundamentalist Mormon and that people like Ron and Dan Lafferty and the polygamist sects are not Mormon (a label the church doesn’t much like anymore, anyway) in any way, shape, or form. And, it is true that the official church excommunicates anyone who publicly practices and advocates polygamy. I understand from those who might have reason to know that this might not necessarily be true of those who practice polygamy privately, but because I only have hearsay to go on I can’t say that I know this for sure. I do know that most of the prosecutions of polygamists in Utah have been on other grounds, such as child abuse, statutory rape, or welfare fraud, and not for the actual practice of plural marriage. There is, interestingly, one interpretation of current mainstream Mormon doctrine that holds that only the practice of polygamy in this world was halted, but that orthodox doctrine still accepts it as an essential practice in the afterlife. Whatever the official stance and actions of the Salt Lake church, among those excommunicated for nonorthodox practices are both Ron and Dan Lafferty.
A second part of the problem the mainstream church has with Krakauer’s book is that he discusses some very controversial aspects of the history of the church and the actions of some of its early leaders. For example, Krakauer asserts early on that the promotional materials handed out by mainstream Mormon missionaries neglect to mention that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, was married to at least thirty-three women and that he may have married at least one girl as young as fourteen years of age, or that Smith apparently denounced plural marriage to his followers even while he practiced it himself for a period of time before he announced that he had received a revelation endorsing the practice. Krakauer also claims that Brigham Young, who gained leadership of the early church after Smith was killed in jail, and who led the church to Utah, occasionally hired local Native Americans in Utah in his struggle against the Gentiles (to a Mormon, anyone who is not a Mormon is a Gentile). This was at a time when the United States government and the Mormon church in Utah Territory were on less than friendly terms. The role of these Native Americans was to harass Gentile wagon trains crossing the territory, presumably so that they would not be inclined to settle in the area.
This sort of activity culminated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857, in which approximately 120 members of what was known as the Fancher Party of emigrants – men, women, and children – were killed. Despite reports from some who claimed that most of the “Indians” who were said to have carried out the massacre were actually Mormons disguised as Native Americans, historians, Krakauer says, are divided on the issue of what Brigham Young’s intentions were with regard to the Fancher Party. The facts seem to be that Young’s first tactic was to blame the Native Americans, but that later he put the whole blame for the massacre on John D. Lee, Young’s own adopted son and a devout Mormon. Young was instrumental in having Lee tried (a second time), convicted, and executed for the murders of members of the Fancher Party. Was Young pursuing justice, as he claimed, or making sure his own complicity in the crime remained unknown? Again, historians are apparently divided as to the truth of the matter. What is clear is that the mainstream Mormon church, as an institution, is not interested in having anyone even speculate in public about the matter.
The mainstream church’s position on these matters, as I understand it, is that these “facts of history” are actually lies manufactured and disseminated by enemies of the church, meant to damage if not destroy the institution and its leaders, past and present. There are church authorities who have been known to advocate the idea that it is more important that histories of the church be “faith promoting” than that they hew strictly to the information discovered by historical scholarship. In an article in the Summer 1981 issue of the journal Brigham Young University Studies, Boyd K. Packer, one of the General Authorities of the church, said that “Some things that are true are not very useful.” Specifically speaking of the history of the church, he said, “The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy.” Going one step further, he addresses the issue of historical information that is already in print but does not support the church’s official history; he believes that such information should not be “disseminated.” It isn't just for prospective converts that the mainstream church wants to santitize history; I have heard reports that a current church lesson manual focusing on the life of Brigham Young represents him as having been monogamous even though there is plentiful historical evidence that he practiced polygamy. Again, I haven't seen this manual myself, but the reports are plentiful enough that I tend to believe them.
No wonder the mainstream Mormon church was upset with Krakauer for writing Under the Banner of Heaven. He makes a good case that the history set forth in his book is the result of solid historical research, and not just an attack on the Mormon church. It would have helped to strengthen his case even further if Krakauer had more thoroughly documented his research through footnotes, although he does include chapter notes and an extensive bibliography to aid anyone who wishes to validate his contentions in the book. Even by discussing these issues, however, Krakauer made himself a target of the mainstream church. You can find the defense he issued when the church attacked his book even before it was published online at http://www.randomhouse.com/features/krakauer/response.html.
The mainstream Mormon church does not help their case by its practice of limiting access to its official archives to researchers they deem friendly to the church. Nor does it improve its position through its treatment of Mormon scholars who do not toe the official doctrinal line in their publications. In a section of “Author’s Remarks” at the end of his book, Krakauer writes about two Mormon historians, Fawn Brodie and D. Michael Quinn, who were ultimately excommunicated from the church at least in part because they did not write history as the church wishes it to be represented. A third writer, Juanita Brooks, who wrote about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is mentioned, but it is unclear weather she was excommunicated or left the church of her own volition. This sort of treatment of scholars who write the truth as they see it and not necessarily as the church sees it continues up to the present day. In the past month or two Grant Palmer, a devout Mormon and longtime employee of the church’s educational system, was disfellowshipped for the things he wrote in his book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. The mainstream Mormon church is clearly not fond of the concept of academic freedom.
In a way, Krakauer had it easier as a non-Mormon writing about the Mormon church’s early history and its later dissenters and schismatics. All the Mormon church could do to him was to denounce his book, which probably only called more attention to it and likely gained him more readers than he would otherwise have had. At any rate, the postscript added to the revised paperback edition of Under the Banner of Heaven, in which he addresses the church’s criticisms and concerns over his book, seems to indicate that the church was much more bothered by his book than he was by their criticisms.
All of this is a lesson for anyone interested in looking at and writing about beliefs and belief systems, especially religious beliefs but, more and more, political beliefs as well. Individuals and institutions, sometimes especially institutions, can be protective of their deeply held beliefs. The writer must realize going in that some folks are going to be highly sensitive about anything you might say about what they believe. What the writer considers completely non-controversial might be perceived by the believer as highly inflammatory. One of the many reasons I’m so interested in looking at beliefs and belief systems is that I want to see if there is any way to ratchet down the sensitivity so we can talk about the things we each believe without so much defensiveness and stress.