Mormonism and the Problem of Jon Krakauer
By Max Perry Mueller | July 14, 2015
Jon Krakauer got lucky. When Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith first went on sale in the summer of 2003, Krakauer hoped that the many sins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) he set out to expose would not go unpunished forever. And he certainly believed that his own book—framed as muckraking of faith gone bad—would help bring this day of reckoning forward. Yet Krakauer couldn’t have imagined the FLDS Church would soon become headline news for much of the next decade. In 2004, child sexual molestation charges against the FLDS Church’s reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs made him one of the most notorious men in America. Krakauer also could not have foreseen that Jeffs’ subsequent trials and police raids of FLDS communities in Utah and Texas would overlap with Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns, not to mention with the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. The fact that the “Mormon fundamentalist moment” of the aughts intersected with the latest “Mormon moment” in American history helped make Under the Banner of Heaven the bestselling book on Mormon history in recent memory.
Krakauer knows the work of Warren Jeffs well. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven examines how, starting in the 1980s, Warren and his father Rulon (who died in 2002) ruled with a potent mix of religious zealotry, intimidation, and corruption the 10,000-member sect, most of whose members reside in Colorado City, Arizona, located on the Utah-Arizona boarder. According to Krakauer, in the FLDS Church, men who do the church leaders’ bidding were rewarded with power, wealth, and very young wives. Dissenters and young men, who were seen as potential threats, were often run out of town. In 2004, just after Krakauer’s book debuted, Jeffs’ nephew filed a lawsuit accusing his uncle of abuse. That scandal was followed by allegations that Jeffs had presided over the marriage “sealing” of a fourteen-year-old girl to her nineteen-year-old cousin. Those accusations set in motion a series of events that began to dismantle the religious community, which was built on a “patch of desert,” as Krakauer put it, on the upper rim of the Grand Canyon. Church members had hoped that such isolation would allow them to be “left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage,” which the LDS Church had officially abandoned in 1890. In May 2006, a nation-wide manhunt began after the FBI placed Jeffs on its “Ten Most Wanted List.” In August of that same year, Jeffs was arrested following a traffic stop in Las Vegas. Along with one of his estimated 80 wives, in Jeffs’ Cadillac SUV police found more than a dozen cell phones, a police scanner, dozens of pairs of sunglasses, three wigs, and $54,000 in cash. In 2011, Jeffs was convicted of aggravated sexual assault against two of his “spiritual brides,” aged 12 and 15, and sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
These events kept journalists, pundits, and casual readers coming back to Under the Banner of Heaven, in hopes of understanding the origins of this violent and abusive faith. After all, what Krakauer claimed on the pages of his book—that the church is run by pedophiles claiming to speak to and for God, and who use their prophetic authority to insist that teenage girls submit to their often octogenarian husbands—was borne out in the court documents and witness testimonies produced during Jeffs’ trials.
As Matthew Bowman, the author of the Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, explained to me, Under the Banner of Heaven “rode the wave of Warren Jeffs for a few years until it became entrenched” as the single most influential book on Mormonism published this century. (Full Disclosure: Bowman is a friend and colleague and I consulted on much of his book.) The popularity of Krakauer’s book occurred despite the LDS Church’s efforts to keep modern-day Mormon polygamy and the LDS Church separate in the collective American mind. In fact, while Jeffs was on the run in 2006—and HBO’s Big Love was all the rage on TV—the LDS Church declared that “there is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’” Instead, the LDS Church insisted that journalists refer to Jeffs’ church as a “polygamist sect,” not a Mormon one.
Yet Krakauer, who grew up in heavily Mormon Corvallis, Oregon, doesn’t believe that the chasm between the two faiths is as vast as the LDS Church claims. After all, “Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon fundamentalists believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history,” Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven. “Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God’s plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable to Moses and Isaiah.” And like fundamentalists who claim to be his true spiritual descendants, Joseph Smith also took teenage girls as his plural wives, a fact that the LDS Church has only just recently acknowledged.
Based on this shared history, Krakauer claims that LDS authorities have learned to tolerate Mormon fundamentalists like “a crazy uncle,” but nevertheless an uncle within the same Mormon family. Despite their church’s protestations, many if not most Mormons still have “‘polygs’ hidden in the attic,” as Krakauer puts it. Even Mitt Romney’s father, George who also ran for president, was born on a polygamist compound in Mexico that was established by Mitt’s great-grandfather in the 1890s to avoid anti-polygamy prosecution.
But Krakauer is (mostly) wrong here. In fact, in their efforts to distance themselves from their polygamist past, the LDS Church and its members have become virulent “polyg” hunters. They are quick to call church officials and the cops on any suspecting offenders of the Utah State Constitution, which explicitly outlaws polygamy, or of LDS marriage norms of traditional, heterosexual monogamy.
The fact that the LDS Church hasn’t been able to shake off the scarlet letter of polygamy has a lot to do with, I would argue, the continuing popularity of Under the Banner of Heaven. This is what I call the “Krakauer problem”: more than twelve years after it was first published, and after Romney’s presidential campaigns helped make Mormonism an acceptable American religion, Under the Banner of Heaven remains the definitive book on Mormon history in popular culture. Under the Banner of Heaven spent months on The New York Times bestseller list, and it is still ranked number one on Amazon’s bestsellers in the “Mormonism” list. Its popularity is also reflected at social events—even social events with other scholars of religion. When historians of Mormon history like me explain what they study, most of those who have read one book on the faith will tell us that they’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as Krakauer himself intended, they will also tell us that they understand it to be not only an exposé of Mormon fundamentalism, but also a reliable history of the origins of the LDS Church, too.
To be sure, this is a problem for the LDS Church and for its members. Mainstream Mormons don’t want to be called upon to answer for Jeffs anymore than “mainstream” Muslims want to be called upon to answer for jihadists. Yet, this is also a problem for scholars of Mormonism, a problem that we’ve yet to solve. Scores of both scholarly and popular books on Mormonism have been published since Under the Banner of Heaven was first released in 2003. Yet none have come close to displacing it as the dominant portrayal of Mormon history in American culture.
THE QUESTION IS, WHY? What’s so compelling about Under the Banner of Heaven? That is, what makes it such a gripping and troubling read? The primary answer is perhaps an obvious one. Krakauer knows how to write a page-turner. “In its depiction of that strange American blend of piety, violence and longing for the End times,” wrote Don Lattin in his review of the book in the San Francisco Chronicle, Under the Banner of Heaven is a true-crime thriller “right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” In the late 1990s, Krakauer became one of the most celebrated and controversial narrative non-fiction writers of his generation. All of Krakauer’s stories focus on the human desire to conquer their environment. Whether it’s in recounting a catastrophic Everest expedition or the story of a promising young man who dies alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Krakauer imbues his writing with a feeling of impending doom—when humans let their own hubris go unchecked, disaster is unavoidable. In Under the Banner of Heaven the disaster occurs in 1984, when brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, recent converts to a brand of Mormon fundamentalism, cut the throat of their young sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, in her home in American Forks, Utah, and subsequently the throat of her infant daughter. Krakauer uses these murders as an entrance into three narrative strains that he interweaves throughout the book, the three narratives ultimately becoming one on Brenda Lafferty’s doorstep.
The first part of Krakauer’s narrative is focused on the early history of the LDS Church and centers on the life and leadership of the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Krakauer follows Smith from the founding of the church in Palmyra, New York, through the nascent church’s tumultuous attempts to establish permanent settlements in Ohio and Missouri, to Smith’s eventual murder at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob in Nauvoo, Illinois. Krakauer describes Smith as a religious genius who taught an “optimistic cosmology” that departed radically from the Calvinistic doctrine of total human depravity that many of his earliest followers inherited from their parents’ Yankee Puritanism. Instead, as Krakauer explains Smith’s basic theological beliefs: “Anyone who elected to obey church authorities, receive the testimony of Jesus, and follow a few simple rules could work his way up the ladder until, in the afterlife, he became a full-fledged god—the ruler of his very own world.”
According to Krakauer, Smith’s success at attracting converts led him make increasingly brazen theological innovations. Smith’s revelations about “the Principle of celestial marriage” sparked internal feuds among the Saints, then gathering in Nauvoo, and angered the Illinois public at-large. After Smith’s death, the Mormons left the United States to seek isolation in Utah. Yet polygamy did not die with Smith. Instead under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, “the Principle” became the defining organizing principle of Mormon culture as they built their Zion in the high plains desert. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did continual conflict with the federal government force the Mormons to give up polygamy.*
This drastic departure from what had been the defining organizing principle of early Mormons leads to the second part of Krakauer’ narrative—the history of Mormon fundamentalism, which emerged in 1890 when then-LDS President and Prophet Wilford Woodruff declared that “‘it was the will of the Lord’ that the church stop sanctioning the doctrine of plural marriage.” Most Mormons eventually accepted the change. But small groups of Mormons felt that the LDS Church had betrayed the true faith. A small number broke from the church, settling small communities throughout the American West. More than a century later, much to the dismay of the mainline LDS Church, not only do Mormon fundamentalists continue to practice polygamy, but they also “consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame—the only true and righteous Mormons,” Krakauer explains. The fundamentalist prophets like Warren Jeffs taught that plural marriage brings order to this world and the next. It forces women into their proper roles as servants to their husbands, and provides for their eternal salvation as no woman can enter the kingdom of heaven if she has not practiced the Principle. Unwilling to compromise celestial marriage for acceptance into the American mainstream as the LDS Church has done, Mormon fundamentalists leaders, who run Colorado City, Arizona “like Kabul under the Taliban” believe they alone carry forth Joseph Smith’s true message.
The story of the Lafferty brothers’ gruesome murders of their sister-in-law and infant niece in 1984 is the third and most problematic part of Krakauer’s narrative. He uses the Lafferty brothers to tie the present-day LDS Church to Mormon fundamentalism by demonstrating that, at its core, the LDS Church has not abandoned its violent polygamous past. After all, the Lafferty brothers were not raised as Mormon fundamentalists, but were reared in what Krakauer describes as a model LDS family. They were known as “hundred-and-ten percenters” in their Provo, Utah community, fully dedicated to living saintly lives—lives that today’s LDS Church maintains would be theologically and culturally incompatible with Mormon fundamentalism. And yet according to Krakauer, it was exactly this dedication to their faith taken to its logical conclusion that drew Ron and Dan Lafferty to begin studying Mormon origins, especially Joseph Smith’s revelations on plural marriage. After meeting a Canadian Fundamentalist prophet, Ron and Dan, along their other brothers, quickly worked to establish their own fundamentalist community based upon the principles of plural marriage and strict patriarchal control. While most of the brothers’ wives went reluctantly along with their husbands’ drastic changes, Brenda Lafferty, the wife of the youngest Lafferty brother, Allen, refused and urged her sister-in-laws to do so as well.* When Ron’s wife Dianna divorced him, Ron received a revelation from God to kill Brenda and her infant daughter, Erica. Ron and Dan carried out the revelation and after living on the run for a time, the two brothers were apprehended, tried, and convicted of the murders.
SCHOLARS OF MORMONISM—both within and outside the LDS Church—have taken Krakauer to task for his richly detailed, but ultimately self-serving research. (Following the initial publication of Under the Banner of Heaven in June 2003, the LDS Church published a lengthy critique of both Krakauer’s sourcing and his interpretation of Mormon theology.)
Bowman explains that because his book is so thesis-driven, in telling his tale about the origins of polygamy and about the Mormons’ propensity to violence in the nineteenth century, Krakauer “sacrifices accuracy on the alter of sensationalism. He treats as facts rumors and unreliable sources, which serious historians have debunked.”
J.B. Haws, a professor of history at Brigham Young University and author of The Mormon Image in the American Mind, notes that of particular concern is how Krakauer “makes little distinction between [LDS] polygamy past and [FLDS] polygamy present.” According Sarah Barringer Gordon, a renowned legal scholar on church-state relations who has written extensively on the history of Mormon polygamy, Joseph Smith built from the ground up a radical new Christian society, of which a radically new approach to marriage was one part. On the other hand, as Gordon explained to the Salt Lake Tribune a few weeks after Jeffs’ 2011 conviction, “[Warren] Jeffs inherited a great deal of religious power and spent his life exploiting it,” including teaching his young brides that their highest calling was to please him sexually. To be sure, historians continue to debate Joseph Smith’s fundamental motivations behind introducing polygamy to his followers. However, most agree that in the early 1840s, Joseph Smith revealed a theological system that empowered polygamous wives to participate in the civil and religious governance of Mormon communities. In the 2000s, Jeffs delivered prophecies that required that FLDS women submit unconditionally to their husbands.
And yet the Krakauer problem doesn’t end with problematic sources and faulty interpretations of theology. To contextualize Under the Banner of Heaven as a piece of writing, the literary “parents” to Krakauer’s book are not only twentieth-century true-crime thrillers and captivity narratives like Capote’s In Cold Blood (which, of course, has also been criticized for blurring the lines between fact and fiction in service of a better story). Bowman says Krakauer’s version of Mormon history is “descended from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London who all wrote nineteenth-century dime novels premised on the notion that Brigham Young’s Zion was a totalitarian dictatorship complete with secret police and young Mormon maidens pining for rescue from the grimly-bearded elders of the church.”
Part of the Krakauer problem then becomes a problem of genre confusion. To be sure, Under the Banner of Heaven is meticulously researched with extensive endnotes. And Krakauer’s hours of interviews with former members of the FLDS expose the abuses that the leadership of this insular community have long perpetrated. And he does so with arguably more authority than even the many Mormon fundamentalist captivity narratives published before or since. Yet, more than history or investigative journalism, Under the Banner of Heaven is first and foremost a page-turning polemic against religion in general and Mormonism—in all its forms—in particular. As such, if it can be solved at all, the Krakauer problem cannot be solved by peer-reviewed biographies of Joseph Smith, like Richard Bushman’s celebrated and exhaustive Rough Stone Rolling, published in 2005.* Nor can it be solved by trade press books like Bowman’s own The Mormon People, which came out in 2012, and has been perhaps the best single-volume history of Mormonism published in the last decade. Krakauer tells a better, more gripping story because he writes by a different set of rules that values thesis over fact.
Krakauer believes that there are degrees of difference—not distinctions of kind—between the murderous Lafferty Brothers, the Mormon fundamentalists, and the LDS Church. This despite the fact that the Lafferty brothers never belonged to Warren Jeffs’ church. And this despite the fact that the mainstream Mormons are, as Gordon has put it, “the most antipolygamy people you could meet.” Yet Krakauer, like others before him and since, makes the argument that because each group claims to be the true heirs to Joseph Smith’s legacy, whether they recognize each other as such or not, they all belong to Joseph Smith’s Mormon faith. However, while they all might belong to the Mormon movement, Warren Jeffs is not LDS. For that matter, Lafferty brothers aren’t FLDS. In fact, most Mormon polygamists look and live more like TLC’s Sister Wives—consenting adults with jobs and careers, who wear clothes from the Gap instead of long prairie skirts and bonnets, whose children attend public schools in communities far away from Colorado City, and who reject the FLDS as dishonoring the Mormon tradition even more vociferously than the LDS Church. When I had the chance to visit with Sister Wives’ Kody Brown and his four wives when they came Boston in 2011 to film an episode of their very popular reality show, they told that the main reason that they chose to “come out” as polygamists was to try to displace Warren Jeffs as the dominant face of Mormon polygamy.
At its core, Krakauer’s thesis is that faith corrupts. And absolute faith—like those held by Mormon fundamentalists—corrupts absolutely, to the point that brothers kill another brother’s wife and child; to the point that thousands of parents allow their teenage daughters to become the spiritual brides of church leaders. The closer the faithful hue to the origins of the faith, the more radical the faithful. As such, the difference between the FLDS and the LDS is that the LDS has moved away from the founding principles (notably the “Principle” of polygamy) to become the kind of friendly, family-oriented Mormon friends and playmates, teachers and coaches, whom Krakauer encountered when he was a child in Oregon. But, according to Krakauer these Mormons’ faith still corrupted their ability to reason, to “sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it.”
And yet for Krakauer the corrupting power of faith isn’t particular to Mormonism. Mormonism—in the extreme form he presents it—becomes a case study of the irrationality and violence inherent to all faith. “As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane,” Krakauer explains in the book’s introduction, “as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout—there may be no more potent force than religion.”
Krakauer’s view on Mormonism in particular and religion in general is a problem. But it’s a problem not only for scholars of religion but also religious people, whose faith Krakauer reduces to a tool of coercion. And as such scholars of religion should pay attention to how, beyond just the FLDS and Warren Jeffs, the lives of the religious people whose sins and traumas Krakauer profiled with such pathos have unfolded since the publication of his book.
The case of Elizabeth Smart might be a good place to start. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer chronicles the then-14-year-old’s abduction from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 at the hands of another self-proclaimed polygamist Mormon prophet and his wife. Krakauer argues that it was Smart’s devotion to her LDS faith that made her susceptible to the manipulation of her kidnapper, who allegedly quoted revelations from Joseph Smith while he raped her almost nightly during her nine-month captivity. In recent years, Smart, who has become an advocate for victims of sex crimes and human trafficking, has herself spoken out against how traditional Mormon sexual purity lessons kept her from simply running away from her captures while they were walking the streets of Salt Lake City, just miles from her home.
Yet, as JB Haws pointed out to me, Elizabeth Smart, who recently gave birth to her first child with her husband whom she met on her Mormon mission in France, has also spoken about how her faith sustained her during and after her captivity. “I wonder if Elizabeth Smart’s resilience, activism and strength and religious commitment will give readers [of Under the Banner of Heaven] pause—a sort of a decade-later postscript,” Haws suggested. “Will it make readers ask, ‘What is it about Mormonism that produces more Elizabeth Smarts than Laffertys?’”
Max Perry Mueller is a contributing editor to Religion & Politics.
*Corrections: The youngest Lafferty brother’s name was Allen, but he was originally misidentified as Dan. The LDS Church ended polygamy in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. Richard Bushman’s book was published in 2005, not 2007 as originally stated. The paperback version came out in 2007.
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