Book Club Discussion of “Under the Banner”

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.

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12 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    Krakauer also discusses the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case in the book. Smart testified today about her ordeal in court. Her testimony is here. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) Brian David Mitchell claimed to be a prophet and claimed to receive revelation from God.

    One of the themes of the book (and part of the reason some may consider it anti-mormon) is trying to determine when a revelation is “true” (i.e., from God) and when it is not from God. Clearly, in both the Smart case and the Lafferty case, there was mental illness going on – which was NOT helped by the doctrine of personal revelation.

    I find Elizabeth’s courage amazing. Bravo to her for testifying today, despite everything she has been through.

  2. Hellmut says:

    I can see how that must have been uncomfortable for you, Aerin, at least on occasion.

    In other faiths, excommunication is rare. In Mormonism, it’s a huge deal as well but that does not constrain the brethren to use it freely and often.

    Mormons are so obsessed with purity, it comes at the expense of charity. Lets face it, control is an essential aspect of the Mormon experience. Other people are taken aback by that.

  3. Seth R. says:

    Hellmut, I could equally say that a normal cross-section of almost any group is obsessed with some sort of esoteric ideological correctness at the expense of charity – regardless of denomination or belief at all.

    I really need to read Banner sometime. It’s just that I can’t bring myself to read another pious New Atheist tract about how a few isolated whackos, and a botched military action over 100 years ago, proves religion-at-large is “inherently violent.”

    And to be clear – the FLDS are NOT a time capsule of Mormonism “the way it used to be.”

    1800s LDS did not live all crowded together in a fenced compound. They did not have a problem with “lost boys.” They did not forbid contact with outsiders or outside ideas. To the extent it was available, they availed themselves of everything in modern education (as it existed at that time). They lived shoulder to shoulder with Gentiles (even if they didn’t much like it). They had friendly relations with competing religions like Catholicism. They were individualistic and self-reliant farmers who spread out over millions of square miles, and could still make it after basically flipping the local stake president the bird (like my great great granduncle essentially did). And they had no systematized method of withholding wives and children from men they didn’t like.

    Not really that similar. The FLDS really jumped the rails in the 1950s when a few power-mad men in their mid-30s took the opportunity presented by a dying patriarch to seize control of the compound and do away with stuff like parental consent for young brides. After that, the whole thing took a really ugly turn.

    But this whole time-capsule theory is bullcrap.

  4. aerin says:

    Seth, thank you for your comment. I hope you do not take my response as an attack of any sort, because it’s not meant to be. I just want to better understand what you are saying.

    I highly recommend that you read the book. Even if you feel you will most certainly disagree with most or all of its points. While my book club might have had a lot of confusion about the difference between modern LDS and the fundamentalists, most LDS should be able to see the clear distinction. I think you (and many LDS) might be surprised.

    But I think the Lafferty murders were horrifying. I think it is evident they were disturbed – I think they could be considered isolated as well. I think the roots of how two disturbed men were able to think they were receiving revelations from God is an important discussion to have. For anyone to have who believes that God currently reveals things to people – how to figure out what is “from God” and what is not from God. I think it is an important thing to discuss, to clarify and re-clarify. So that there is never any misunderstanding.

    I don’t understand how attacks against civilians are a “botched military action”. As another person who was from the same time period, did Sherman kill women and children (over 4)? (I honestly don’t know).

    But to your point, about the current FLDS being different from the polygamy from the nineteenth century – if LDS (like yourself) refuse to read books and materials critical of mormonism – or even those that describe how some isolated wackos “perverted” LDS doctrine – that seems to me to forbid contact from outsiders and outside ideas. Perhaps back in the nineteenth century mormons were more willing to entertain outside ideas than they are today.

    Now, to your credit, you are here posting at MSP, which shows that you (and others) are willing to discuss and debate these types of things.

    But it seems to me that something that is true should always be true, no matter what the source is. And no matter what the religious (or non religious) affiliation of the author is.

  5. chanson says:

    I really need to read Banner sometime. Its just that I cant bring myself to read another pious New Atheist tract about how a few isolated whackos, and a botched military action over 100 years ago, proves religion-at-large is inherently violent.

    I doubt this is a “pious New Atheist tract.” The thing is, though, that the Bible teaches that killing people is a righteous thing to do as long as God commands it. And — as Aerin points out — there’s that problem of deciding when the command came from God. Holding up that book as a “moral” guide is inherently dangerous, and there are more than just a handful of examples to show that the danger is real. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that all religion is inherently violent.

    And to be clear the FLDS are NOT a time capsule of Mormonism the way it used to be.

    So were these guys specifically FLDS? If he believed he was prophet and was writing his own scriptures, it sounds like a generic Restoration theme. (Or am I confusing two different cases?)

    But this whole time-capsule theory is bullcrap.

    You’re right that the FLDS society is the most extreme (and extremely dysfunctional) expression of the Mormon polygamist tradition. Some of the other fundamentalist groups in the Mormon corridor probably give a better picture of what early Mormon Utah society was like. (I attended a sacrament meeting at an AUB church when I was in Utah, and I’m planning to write about it soon. It was very interesting.)

    I’m not sure how you can claim that they didn’t have a problem with “lost boys” though. It would probably be more accurate to say they had less of a problem. It’s my impression that all human societies have some tendency towards polygyny — either openly practiced (Muslims, fundamentalist Mormons, some traditional societies) or de-facto (eg. wife+mistress, first-wife+trophy-wife), and the more the polygyny, the more the society has a problem with frustrated leftover males at the bottom of the social ladder.

  6. aerin says:

    chanson – as far as FLDS goes, well, that’s difficult to tell. The Laffertys were active LDS Brighamite members, then they were excommunicated for many reasons (the book goes into it). They joined something called “The school of the prophets” with a new prophet named Onias (who had been affliated with some of the Canadian polygamists but wasn’t at that point).

    But as far as I know, they (the Laffertys) were not affliated with Rulon Jeffs or Warren Jeffs, or some of the other more well-known fundamentalist sects. They did believe the SLC LDS church had gone off base and needed to go back to the original church JS/BY had restored, including polygamy and blood atonement.

    In the book, Krakauer does visit some of the polygamist communities in Colorado City and in Alberta, Canada and speaks with former FLDS/polygamist members (to get an idea about how some people feel the current SLC LDS church has gone “astray”).

  7. Seth R. says:

    Any irritation was more against the kind of reductionist thinking and bad parallels Krakauer seems to be dealing in.

    And “lost boys” weren’t a problem in 1800s Utah for a couple reasons:

    1. Not everyone was doing it. In fact, most people weren’t doing it. And those who were had an average of two wives. People like my great, great, great(?) grandfather with his 23 were limited to a small core group from the “Nauvoo Period” and their practices did not persist into the Utah period. So it was hardly the drain on the female pool you’d think it was.

    2. Guys married on average, about three years younger than their own age. And a high rate of population growth meant that it really was like the Beach Boys said “two girls for every boy.”

    Granted, you probably can’t keep that up as a model for centuries to come. But as an overall demographic, it wasn’t systematically leaving guys without prospects.

    The FLDS are a demographic trainwreck, and there really aren’t half as many similarities as you’d think.

  8. chanson says:

    Seth — Your points 1 & 2 are probably correct, but there’s a third demographic consideration: there was a (relative) shortage of women among the white settlers of the American west (in general) because women and girls didn’t have quite the same freedom to set off on an adventure to the west that the guys did. I’ve heard that — according to the census — the same dynamic existed in Mormon Utah, even though many Mormon pioneers migrated as families.

    That said, I’ll grant you that their situation isn’t directly comparable to the FLDS.

  9. Wayne says:

    Seth- It really is not reductionist, I read it a few years ago and found it to be nothing like some anti-Mormon tract. (like the kinds that are handed out at Temple Square)

  10. wayne says:

    I want to add that Krakauer gives Mormon fundamentalists a chance to air the point of view. Their story puts into perspective aspects of beliefs, such as personal revelation into perspective. It is a perspective that should not be ignored by the members of the L.D.S. church

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