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Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven chronicles the 1984 murders of two families by two brothers who believe a heavenly vision commanded them to kill a woman and her infant daughter. At least it uses the murder as a starting point. The motivation for the throat-cutting was not only a supposed divine revelation but a personal and complicated relationship involving a marriage gone wrong and the defiance of a wife who refused to go along with a fundamentalist “commandment” that she allow her husband a second wife. Both brothers belonged to one of the several LDS church-disowned splinter groups who believe that the church went terribly wrong when it officially banned polygamy in 1890.

In Krakauer’s version of the history, the worst of the polygamists used the god-sanctioned practice to commit rape and incest on a grand scale. One of the chief tenets of the sects was/is absolute obedience to the patriarch, so once the vision of the male in charge came down, the discussion was over. Many women felt comfortable with the idea and followed willingly. A particularly interesting case to me was that of 12-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her bed and forced to live as a sex slave for something like two years. When she was finally recovered and returned to her family, her main concern was for the fate of her captors. Seemingly A classic case of the Stockholm Syndrome wherein victims bond sympathetically with those who hold them prisoners.

Much of what Krakauer describes in the book is historically accurate, and beyond appalling. It’s savage and violent and all centered around so-called visions of specific individuals who use their communications with the Almighty to commit all kinds of outrages. None of what they do is sanctioned by the church, at least after 1890. However, there is plenty of church-sanctioned slaughter to condemn before that time, such as the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857. In that event–series of events, actually–a self-styled militia, many disguised as Indians, murdered about 120 members of a passing wagon train. The president of the church at the time–the famous Brigham Young–condoned both the murders and the cover-up. There are plenty of execrable acts committed under the banner of other religions, so it would be entirely unfair and inaccurate to declare the Mormon church one-and-only violent outlaw religion. Still, the degree of savagery in its history is hard to ignore. The insistence on a certain degree of secrecy in its philosophy and practices contributes to the suspicions many hold against it. That’s not to mention one of the underpinnings of church philosophy which was blatantly racist. In 2019 the practice of discrimination against blacks was officially stopped, but of course many still believe in it.

Jon Krakauer

At any rate, Under the Banner of Heaven, as an account of events surrounding America’s only home-grown religion, makes for disturbing reading.

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