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Mormons on trial

by Archives November 5, 2003

On July 24, 1984 two brothers murdered their sister in-law and her daughter because they believed they were under orders from God to do so. Ron and Dan Lafferty acted on the ‘removal revelation,’ a decree that God had given directly to Ron. Both believed strongly in The Book of Mormon, but they had fallen out with the Church of Latter-Day Saints because of their radical beliefs. Both believed it was the Church, not them that had been led astray.

Jon Krakauer steps into the Mormon Church from the Lafferty’s Utah doorstep. His new book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith chronicles the history of the Mormon Church from the 1820s until the present. Krakauer sets the Lafferty family in a context, specifically, within a bloody Mormon history in which radicalism has been both rampant and, Krakauer argues, encouraged.

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, claimed that individuals should speak to God personally, and that the head of the Church receives revelations directly from the creator. Krakauer argues that Mormonism’s focus on personal contact with God has encouraged various people to believe they are the one true prophet who can hear the Lord. Dan Lafferty still calls himself Elijah, God’s prophet, and he is not the only man to do so.

Joseph Smith also preached that the blood of the enemy must be spilt when he found himself amid a violent American public, which rejected the Mormonism. With this foundation of violence and the possibility of divine validation for bloodshed, Krakauer argues that the Mormon Church has become a breeding ground for radicalism. This is without even taking into account the Church’s history of polygamy.

Krakauer points his readers to Mormonism’s polygamous history. Smith introduced the notion of ‘celestial marriage’ in 1843. The Church now rejects polygamy, but many still disagree with the Church. Polygamous Mormons not only still live in the U.S., but one of the largest polygamous settlements is in Bountiful, British Columbia. Elizabeth Smart, Krakauer reminds us, was abducted only last year to become one such polygamous wife to a Mormon fundamentalist, Brian David Mitchell.

Krakauer has a lot of details in his book – one might say too many details. The subject is interesting (did you know Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the western hemisphere?), but Krakauer severely needs editing. He spends too much time naming names that the reader will soon forget and too much space quoting other people.

The essential questions Krakauer poses are central problems of the modern world (if you believe in miracles, are you insane?). His own skepticism, however, creeps all too often into the text, and he ends up sounding patronizing rather than inquisitive, “Ron knows the commandments he’d received from God were no mere figments of his imagination. The Lord spoke to him. And he isn’t about to believe the words of some faithless, pencil-neck shrink over the voice of the Almighty. That, after all, would really be crazy.”

Krakauer succeeds in pointing out one interesting problem. Where should the law draw the line when an individual claims they’re acting in their right of religious freedom? Should polygamy be prosecuted, and are the Lafferty brothers sane enough to deserve the charge of murder-in-the first?

Don’t step lightly into this read, but if you do, give yourself the time (you’ll need lots of it) to savour its insightful reminders of the problems of modern faith. And if you’re an addict to expose style shows la Sixty Minutes, this is definitely a must read.

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