On July 27, 1984 brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty brutally murdered their sister-in-law and 15-month old niece. They said it was a directive from God, a “removal revelation.”

In fact, Dan Lafferty’s exact words were, “I was doing God’s will, which is not a crime.”

And so sets the stage for UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A STORY OF VIOLENT FAITH by Jon Krakauer, an exhaustive exploration into the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Church of Mormon or LDS) and the excommunicated sect, The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

I actually sat down with this book in 2003, when I was five months pregnant. While I hadn’t read Krakauer’s previous books, INTO THIN AIR or INTO THE WILD, I knew he was a well-respected non-fiction writer who had received a fair amount of acclaim. After making it through 100 pages, though, I had to put it down. The violence, especially involving the baby was too much to bear while my own baby was growing inside of me and my hormones were all crazy. The historical backstory was especially comprehensive and just too dense for me to really get lost in. Fast forward six years and one of my fellow book clubbers mandated it for her turn hosting this July and here I am again.

The second time around the violence was still hard to read and the history was again dense and slow moving, much like working your way through a thatchy forest, pushing the bark and leaves out of your way to make it to the clearing. That being said, I think this is an important book, flawed and all.


It’s important to understand history so we can anticipate and plan for the future. It’s important to learn other’s perspectives and their world views in hopes of understanding them. When things go wrong (horribly, horribly wrong), it’s important to be willing to go back–even to the very beginning–to understand how it could have happened. And, hopefully, to do whatever is needed so it doesn’t happen again. However, this becomes infinitely complicated when the horribly, horribly wrong is done in the name of religious freedom.

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN recounts Ron and Dan Lafferty’s movement into the fundamentalist teachings that sprang from LDS founder Joseph Smith and subsequent self-ordained prophets throughout Mormon history. The FLDS faith is riddled with documented atrocities toward women and girls (including physical, sexual and emotional abuse) placing them outside of an equal role with men, and into one that views them as property. When Ron’s wife Dianna can no longer take his steadily growing controlling nature she leaves him and takes their children across the country. Her departure sets off a downward spiral in Ron, already angry at the world and profoundly narcissistic, who copes through obsessive prayer and requests for revelations from God. Finally, he gets his wish; a direct order to kill his sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica, as well as two other community members, all seen by Ron as having aided in Dianna leaving and disrupting God’s plan for him.

Interestingly though, Ron’s revelation isn’t for him to kill them, but for his brother Dan to do it. He is just the voice, while Dan is the body to carry out the revelation. Ron’s increasing anger and narcissim compounded with Dan’s fervent fundamentalist fanaticism enabled them to “do God’s will” and take lives of two innocent people. Fortunately, they were unable to carry out the other murders due to some circumstances beyond their control.

Horrifying? Yes. Fascinating? Eerily so. Unconscionable? Absolutely. And yet, everything I shared with you was a supporting character to the chapter upon chapter of the starring role: The History of Joseph Smith and the Chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This is a problem only because the book–on the front cover even–markets itself as a true crime story. I wanted to know so much more about what led up to the murders of Brenda and Erica and just enough history for me to understand the role that violence has played in the FLDS faith. Before closing the book I wanted to know:

When Ron shared his revelation with people of his church, why did no one go to the police?

Why didn’t Brenda’s husband Allen do anything to protect her? Yes, Ron told him too.

Why did no one tell Brenda that they feared for her life?

Why didn’t Krakauer–who had access to both Dan and Ron in prison–have any follow up with Allen?

Why didn’t Erica leave when she had the chance?

I can’t expect all the questions to be answered, most certainly not the last one. These just seem like gaping holes in an account that is so meticulously researched documented. Still, I came away knowing more than when I came in. I came away knowing more clearly the differences between a religious community trying to appeal to the mainstream (LDS) and one that is fervently against the norm (FLDS). I came away knowing that religious fanaticism practiced under a banner of heaven, regardless of the faith being followed, can be horrifically destructive and should not be excused.

Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 432
Genre: Non-fiction