My book club recently read Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer. Despite my interest in all things mormon, I did not recommend this book to my group. I had read it before, and found it frightening. The Lafferty murders were especially heinous (to my mind) and disturbing on many levels. Other book club members had read “Into Thin Air” and “Into the Wild”, and had enjoyed both.
As an aside, my book club meets at a local library, and is comprised of anywhere from six to ten people from various backgrounds (including different faiths). I am the only mormon/former mormon in the group. The great thing about my book club is first, everyone actually reads the book up for discussion and second, we actually talk about the book (and not simply gossip throughout the discussion).
Last month, before the discussion, I shared with the group that I had been raised mormon. I’ve attended this group for three years, so it may come as some surprise to readers here that I spoke up (or hadn’t spoken up prior to now). The book club discussion leader asked me to say a few words about being raised mormon, my own family history and to answer questions in the discussion if I was able to.
This is an incredibly difficult task for me. Having been raised mormon, I know quite a bit about the religion. I am quite familiar with LDS history and the LDS scriptures. But, I’ve also left active mormonism, and have many disagreements with current mormon doctrine and faith. Including the fact, which was discussed in Krakauer’s book and that I agree with, that mormon doctrine is difficult to define.
So when someone says “do mormons really believe that?” – I find myself in a precarious position and at times, overwhelmed. Particularly since many people that I know and love still identify themselves as mormon. I find it hard to defend beliefs that I don’t believe in.
The structure of our discussion was enlightening. The number one question that everyone had was the difference between the fundamentalist LDS and the mainstream SLC LDS. Sometimes this is a question that I share. I talk a little about my questions in my MSP post here.
I was able to explain that the fundamentalists typically believe in polygamy and all sorts of other doctrines that have “fallen out of favor” over the past century (like blood atonement and opposition to inter-racial marriage). The book itself had a number of descriptions of the various FLDS sects and communities. But the book also discusses Joseph Smith’s original vision, his death, Brigham Young’s ascendancy to power and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Why is it that non mormons always ask about polygamy? I suppose it was simply what LDS were most famous for – and no matter how much the mainstream church tries to distance itself from the practice, it’s still what most people associate with mormons and mormonism. I was also asked about the difference between a church and a temple. And more about why the mormons were so unpopular in both Ohio and Missouri (leading to much of the fear when Utah was still a young territory).
At one point, during the discussion, I admit I was speechless when I was asked if some of the believing mormons in my life would read the book. I had to admit that they would not. That some of these relatives would consider it “anti-mormon” and therefore not read it. The book discusses things like Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the revelation that spoke directly to Emma. Why did/do I find that disturbing? Because one of the arguments that Krakauer makes is how the mainstream LDS church (and the FLDS churches for that matter) deals with criticism and their own history/histories. I would like to think that my loved ones would be willing to read anything, and judge the truth for themselves. Sadly, that is not the case.
I was also able to pass around a drawing I made of the polygamy in my own family, in my ancestry. One ancestor had seven wives, another had only two. But for the second ancestor, the second wife was seventeen in the late 1860s when she married someone thirty years her senior. There was a clear line (around 1890?) where my ancestors stopped the practice.
Krakauer talks about documentation and journaling among mormons – and I was able to pass around a family book about my great-grandparents, and one showing one side of my current (very large) extended family. After reading “Under the Banner”, one book club member asked about the family reunion (which the second book had been created for) – if I had been accepted despite no longer being officially mormon. I replied that around a third of the family is no longer mormon and that’s generally accepted in the family.
I did explain that I had to request that my name be removed – I hadn’t been excommunicated. One of the polygamists in the book had also been excommunicated. Strangely, this also shocked (and appeared to dismay) the group.
All in all, it was a good discussion. I felt I was able to explain more about the book and clear up some confusion. I was honest, and I didn’t shy away from answering more troublesome questions. When I questioned Krakauer’s assertion that the LDS church was one of the fastest growing in the U.S., some of the group members mentioned that many mainstream religions typically inflate their membership numbers.
I probably should have invited the LDS missionaries to give another perspective on the book – but I’m not sure they would even have known about some of the historical issues OR have been able to read the book ahead of time.