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No. of Recommendations: 6
In “Under the Banner of Heaven” Jon Krakauer uses the brutal 1984 murder of a Utah woman and her infant daughter to frame a broader examination of the Mormon fundamentalist brothers who committed it, and the twisted beliefs that underlie their actions. Within that framework, he examines the roots of the Church of Latter-day Saints, its founder Joseph Smith, his successor, Brigham Young, and the violent times that tested the faith and created one of the most powerful and dynamic beliefs in contemporary religion. The story is as riveting as it is disturbing, and one of the most interesting books I've read lately.

At last count there were more than 11 million members of the Church of the Later Day Saints, which presents itself as the world's only true religion. Mormonism is the fastest growing faith in the Western Hemisphere, and the fourth largest religious body in the U.S. Each year, another 30,000 earnest young Mormon missionaries graduate from their training program in Salt Lake City and start on their 2-year missions to promote the faith and make new converts in every corner of the globe. Mormonism is considered in some sober academic circles to be well on its way to becoming a major world religion – the first such faith to emerge since Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, the true heart of Mormonism is not Salt Lake City, but Provo Utah, and surrounding Utah County. Here, the population is almost 90 percent Mormon. The LDS religion forbids abortion, frowns on contraception, and teaches that Mormon couples have a sacred duty to have as many children as they can support. This doctrine goes a long way toward explaining why Utah County has the highest birthrate in the U.S. - higher, in fact, than that of Bangladesh.

The book begins with a lurid account of the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her little girl by her brothers-in-law Ron and Dan Lafferty, both excommunicated members of the LDS Church and committed fundamentalists. Ron Lafferty was responding to a personal revelation from God - one of many that he had received by then – to “eliminate” Brenda and her child and two other people. Characteristically, the four that God supposedly wanted out of the way were folks for whom Ron held a grudge. In the context of Ron's fundamentalist beliefs, however, these revelations were not to be questioned, but acted upon, and he had no trouble convincing his fundamentalist brother Dan and two others to help him.

Interwoven between chapters describing how the Lafferty brothers - once promising young main-line Mormon kids - became deranged self-proclaimed prophets, is the even more fascinating story of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion.

Mormon faith has it that the seventeen year-old Joseph Smith was visited one night by the angel Moroni, who told him that the time would come for him to unearth a buried testament, written in strange characters on plates of gold and conveniently located on a nearby hill. He was instructed to visit the spot on September 22 of every year, to meet with the angel and receive further instructions. Four years later, in 1826, the angel instructed him to recover the testament a year from that date, and to marry a girl named Emma Hale, who lived nearby, and to bring her with him when he returned to the site a year later. This he did, and he and according to LDS theology, he and Emma recovered the sacred gold plates.

Using a special set of spectacles that he had received from Moroni, (If any of this seems the least bit unlikely, you should read the whole account) Smith began to translate the exotic text. But after two months of hard work and 116 pages of translation, and after the angel Moroni reclaimed the plates and spectacles, Smith's helper, Martin Harris, mislaid the translated pages.

After much praying and contrition, Moroni returned the plates, but not the magic spectacles. Fortunately, Smith had a workaround. Using a “peep stone”, an egg-shaped rock that he had discovered deep underground while digging a well years before, he was able to complete the translation. Determined to publish his “Book of Mormon” but lacking the funds, he received a revelation that his helper Harris should sell his farm in order to pay the printers. Harris had already lost his wife, who had become fed up with his devotion to Smith and left him. Finally, on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith formally incorporated the religion that we know as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The religion's foundation – its sacred touchstone and guiding scripture - is the translation of the gold plates.

As the author walks us through the early history of the Church and the travails of its members, one is struck by the unshakable faith that must have been required for it to endure the scorn and rejection of almost everyone outside the religion. That rejection ultimately led to the murder of Joseph Smith, and the exodus of the entire membership to the Great Basin of Utah, an area so remote and desolate in the mid-nineteenth century as to be without value to the rest of the nation.

The relatively short history of Mormonism is riddled with schisms and feuds among its male members, many of whom claimed to be in direct communication with the Almighty. This has led to the establishment of offshoot communities all over the west, including Mexico and Canada. Even Smith's first wife Emma joined another branch of the Church after his death.

By far the most derisive issue that the church has ever faced is Joseph Smith's revelation #132, mandating “plural wifery” or what the rest of the world calls polygamy. Officially denounced by the LDS Church early in the twentieth century, it nevertheless remains an institution in the fundamentalist sects. Estimates of its current practitioners in North America run as high as 100,000. This is a frequently recurring theme in the book.

In the final chapter, the author states that he first conceived of the project as an attempt to grasp the nature of religious belief, but decided that it would be more manageable if he simply tried to examine belief more or less exclusively through the lens of Mormonism. Since the religion was founded a mere 173 years ago, its creation is well documented by firsthand accounts. Thanks to the Mormons, he says, “we have been given an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate – in astonishing detail – how an important religion came to be.”

Personally, I found the book to be both exciting and disturbing, and it made me realize that I knew almost nothing about a major part of the lives of many of my friends and acquaintances. You won't see “Under the Banner of Heaven” on the LDS Church recommended reading list, but it's a great book, and an excellent treatment of a complex and prickly subject.

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