Author, Mormons clash on roots of polygamy

Associated Pres, July 5, 2003
C.G. Wallace, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY – Jon Krakauer, bestselling author, has built a reputation on gripping portrayals of those who push their physical limits. Now the writer has set his sights on spiritual extremes, and his upcoming book already is creating headaches for the image-conscious Mormon Church.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, in bookstores July 15, examines the dangers of religious extremism through those who claim to follow the original teachings of the Mormon Church.

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These “fundamentalists” still practice polygamy, even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abandoned the practice in 1890 and continues to distance itself from the subject.

Krakauer is best known for Into Thin Air, his firsthand account of a doomed expedition on Mount Everest. That book, along with his earlier Into the Wild, were national bestsellers.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer turns his attention to the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica.

Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brenda’s brothers-in-law, slit their victims’ throats with a 10-inch boning knife and later claimed God had ordered the slayings. The men were tried separately; Dan is serving a life sentence, and Ron is on death row.

With Dan as a main source, Krakauer writes that the brothers decided to practice polygamy and killed Brenda and her child because the mother had opposed them.

Under the Banner of Heaven tries to add a larger context to the killings and a possible connection to Mormon fundamentalism. It examines the secretive communities of polygamists, those who have left the practice and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. Brian David Mitchell claims God told him to take Elizabeth as a “sister wife.”

The book describes Joseph Smith and his revelation to practice polygamy and portrays Smith, who wrote the Book of Mormon, as a grifter and philanderer. Krakauer also explores the darker chapters of the faith’s brief, sometimes violent, history, including the religion’s role in the massacre of California-bound pioneers in 1857.

More recently, the Smart abduction and polygamy claims have put the church on the defensive, and religious experts have questioned whether the hierarchy can ever shake the faith’s past embarrassments.

The Mormon Church has nothing to do with “fundamentalists” and excommunicates those who advocate plural marriage. Spokesman Michael Otterson called Krakauer’s attempt to link zealots with Mormon history and doctrine “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern church.”

“His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational and that irrational people do strange things,” Otterson said. “He does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes.”

Still, zealots needle the church’s image, and polygamy remains linked to the church’s founding. In 1843, Smith disclosed his revelation that polygamy, restored by prophecy from the patriarchal Old Testament, was an essential ingredient of eternal exaltation.

Smith’s teachings about polygamy remain in four volumes of scripture and are used as a justification for Mitchell and thousands of fundamentalists to defy mainstream Mormonism and establish sects where men take multiple wives, some as young as 12.

Krakauer argues that the faith’s inconsistencies and silences about its relatively short past – the church was organized in 1830 – is causing recurring embarrassment about polygamy. He notes that even after the church banned the practice as a condition of Utah’s statehood, some Mormon leaders continued to take multiple wives after 1890.

A planned cross-country tour by Krakauer promises fresh attention to the church’s past. Dan Wotherspoon, editor of the Mormon magazine Sunstone, said the book will spotlight the faith much like the lead-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics, when national profiles of Salt Lake City put the church under a microscope.

“This could very well be the next Olympics in the sense of them raising awareness of Mormonism’s past and some of its difficulties,” Wotherspoon said. “It could make for a long and difficult summer.”

So far, Doubleday has printed 350,000 copies of the book, and early buzz has been favorable. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have recommended it in summer reading lists, and GQ magazine features excerpts.

Two weeks before it goes on sale, the book ranked 164th among’s 1.5 million books, a “pretty hefty rank” for a book not yet available, Amazon’s Bill Curry said.

The church-owned Deseret Book chain already has said it won’t stock the book.

“We believe, after reviewing the book, that it will alienate and offend a majority of our customers,” Gail Brown said.

Krakauer’s language in the book is pointed: “Mormon authorities treat the fundamentalists as they would a crazy uncle – they try to keep the ‘polygs’ hidden in the attic, safely out of sight, but the fundamentalists always seem to be sneaking out to appear in public at inopportune moments to create unsavory scenes, embarrassing the entire LDS clan.”

Krakauer declined to be interviewed.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday July 5, 2003.
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