Posted by: Andrea | June 2, 2008

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

It’s taken me awhile to get this review written, not because this book isn’t good because it is, but just because I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  I generally like Jon Krakauer, I read his book about the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air, and thought it was well written, if a bit one sided.  I felt that Krakauer was definitely writing that book from his own perspective, as opposed to writing the book as an investigative journalist would have.  I have issues with that book that go way beyond his writing style, however, I think that is because Krakauer wrote that book so soon after the storm that killed eight people and clearly affected him deeply.  My view on that book could be a whole review of itself, but I’ll just leave it with a recommendation.  If you’ve read Into Thin Air you MUST read The Climb, by Anatoli Boukreev, a guide who was up on the mountain that day.  It’s a far better written book in my opinion and also better researched, due to it being written several years after the disaster.  I also think it’s important to read this book because Krakauer is very condemning of Boukreev’s role in the events of that day, going so far as to blame him for acting irresponsibly.  However Boukreev was awarded a commendation for bravery by the American Alpine Club for his role in the events on Everest – their most prestigious award.  He saved many lives that day, which is hardly mentioned by Krakauer.  It’s unfortunate and unfair that Krakauer’s book has become the better known one when it presents Boukreev in such a negative light.  Beyond that though, The Climb in general is also a fantastic book about high-altitude mountaineering.  Definitely recommended. 

ANYWAY, sorry about that tangent there.  I think Krakauer writes good books, if not necessarily comprehensive ones.  I’d heard about this book and was interested in reading his take on the Mormon faith.  I’d done research on the Latter-Day Saints in high school and I’ll admit right now, I have a lot of concerns about the Mormon faith.  But I recognized that what I knew was very limited and I wanted to learn more about the contemporary Mormon church.  I’d hoped that this book was the place to find that information out.

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Heaven is an interesting book, but Krakauer focuses almost exclusively on fundamentalist Mormons.  These are the subgroups (like the group in Texas who had all their children removed after accusations of abuse) who have been excommunicated from the Mormon church and practice polygamy.  He jumps back and forth chapter by chapter, telling the story of the modern polygamous sects combined with the history of the founding of the Mormon church.  He describes Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and all the various moves that led the Mormons to eventually settle in Utah.  Don’t me wrong, it’s fascinating to read a description of the founding of such a large church.  Most religions were founded so long ago that all but the most basic information has been lost.  In the case of the Mormons, a huge amount of historical documents still exist.  According to Krakauer a great number of these have been bought and kept secret by the LDS church (especially documents that disagree with or disprove Smith’s claims), but these documents are still there.  As a lover of archaeology and anthropology, I find all of this fascinating.

But still, what is lacking from this book is an explanation of what the modern LDS church actually believes.  Krakauer focuses on the fundamentalist Mormons and largely ignores the rest of the church.  For some, this might be exactly what they want.  He does focus on all of the controversial, intriguing stuff, all the polygamy and multiple wives and signs from god that 60 year old men should marry 14 year old girls.  For some, this may be extremely interesting, but I just found it kind of sad.  I know this stuff exists, but I also know that these sects are rare and have largely been shunned by the rest of the Mormon Church.  Krakauer claims that these sects are actually still very connected to the mainstream Mormon Church and that if higher up Mormons had their way, they’d all still be polygamous today.  I realise this may be true, but I really really hope it’s not.

I kind of went with it though, persevering in the hopes that if Krakauer was going to spend so much time writing about polygamy, he’d at least explain why this kind of life was so convincing to so many people.  He said over and over why specific people were ‘convinced by the scriptures’ that Smith’s Doctrine Section 132 was correct.  132 is the revelation Smith made granting men the divine right to take more than one wife.  Now, I know nothing about Mormon scripture, but even to me this sounds fishy.  Basically Smith wanted to take another wife, but his first wife, Emma, was having none of it.  She said if he was going to take another wife, she’d take another husband.  So conveniently, Smith then received a revelation from God saying that men could have multiple wives but women weren’t allowed anyone except their husbands.  Even more conveniently, it named Emma specifically multiple times and said she was to obey her husband or she’d be destroyed by God.  I guess Smith really WAS a very charismatic man, because apparently everybody bought this.  My problem is that if so many people are convinced by the scriptures, I need a little bit more than just ‘the doctrine said so’ and then suddenly everybody is convinced.  These men were continually described as the big thinkers and scholars of their day, so why did everybody believe this stuff?  I realise that focusing on a bunch of religious scripture and doctrine isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it left a big hole in the discussion about polygamy for me. 

Overall, I’d say this is an interesting book.  The problems I had with it weren’t necessarily the fault of the book itself, but more that my expectations of what this book was about weren’t totally accurate.  I wouldn’t say I learned anything particularly new here, but it did flesh out what I kind of already knew.  Actually, that’s a bit of a lie, I did learn about one historical event, a massacre of 150 settlers by Mormons in Utah.  I couldn’t this had actually happened and that I hadn’t ever heard of it before!  

I don’t really want to get into a discussion about my opinions about the LDS church, mainly because they’re probably not very popular and I know the worst thing to do is to make comments on politics or religion on a blog.  And I don’t have any problem with the millions of very lovely Mormons living their lives throughout the country.  I’ve met many of them and they’ve always been extremely nice to me (heathen that I am).  But I can’t help but be a little bit nervous about a church that is growing so rapidly but only allowed black people to be members in 1978 and still won’t allow women to hold any position of authority or power.  From my understanding of Mormon doctrine, women aren’t allowed to speak in the temple or teach on any subject, ever.  Oh, and interracial marriage is forbidden.

So yeah, if you want to learn a bit about fundamentalist Mormonism, polygamy and the history of the LDS church, then this book is for you.  Oh, yeah, there’s also this whole other thread about how these two guys got a revelation from god and killed their sister-in-law and her 15 month old daughter, their own niece.  Did I not mention that?





  1. Hi, I found you through Dead Charming’s Blogroll…just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed reading your blog!

  2. Subnotes before my main “comment”:

    1) Describing the Mormon founders as “big-thinkers” or theologically knowledgeable would be a TOUGH sell outside of BYU. They were certainly from the first wave of the “burned-over” evangelical movements, but their theology was no more complex then your typical “big church” evangelical today.

    2) The fracture between fundamentalist thinking and mainstream thinking in today’s LDS church isn’t cut and dried even between stakes, nevermind between the administrative bodies at large. One of the larger concerns for rank-and-file Mormons is the continuous election of fundamentalist leaning conservatives to the council of the twelve apostles.

    3) Independence of thought is very important to the Morman mindset. As it is to many western groups. Mormonism in many ways distills MUCH of the pioneer and “free and open west” mentalities. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch.

    4) As a social collective (which any faith organization is at some level) the Mormon church EXCELS. No matter where you go IN THE WORLD if there is a Mormon stake, you have a sense of home. That is powerful on a social level that few other churches can even hope to aspire to.

    5) As you pointed out, the VAST majority of Mormons are neither crazy, nor evil, nor significantly “morally” different from any other major faith group. I’ve grown up with, worked with and deeply known MANY (i.e. more than hundreds of) Mormons. I have only met two I would consider “crazy fundamentalist scary types.” I wish I could say they same about Catholics/Main-Line Protestants/Evangelicals/Adventists/etc.

    I read “Under the Banner of Heaven” the first week it was in print. A LOT of people I knew read it at about the same time. I lived in Boise, Idaho at the time (aka Little Salt Lake City) and in my world, it was more controversial than “The Divinci Code” ever was.

    In a three word review: “sensationalistic narrow-minded accuracy” (depending on how you count it, that’s four words).

    Sometimes you can state a fact, and still be sensationalistic. Sometimes you can explain and background everything ad nauseam and still be narrow-minded. And sometimes you can be sensationalistic and narrow-minded and still be accurate.

    If “Under the Banner of Heaven” is an easy read for someone, then they’re not paying enough attention. I found it to be difficult bordering on excruciating…but that’s also because I fact-checked about everything he wrote down.

    And what’s worse is that people in the media are now using this book as a reference source when discussing the LDS church. No matter what I think of Mitt Romney (which isn’t much), I don’t think anyone deserves to face third hand accusations about the founding of one’s faith based on a bad paraphrase of someone else’s muckraking.

    Do I personally think Mormonism is a cult? Nope. Do I think it’s theologically valid? Compared to…??? Would I recommend this book? Nope. Not even to people I know would enjoy it.

    And after “Under…Heaven” and “Into Thin Air” I’ve sworn I wouldn’t read another of his books. To my knowledge he’s the ONLY author I’ve ever said that about.

    And I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review.

  3. Here’s a website that goes right to the point of modern Mormonism

    Watch one of the current shows that might interest you.

  4. Sorry, I should have clarified that the theologians I was talking about where considered the ‘big thinkers’ within mormonism, not necessarily within all of the U.S. at the time. These are the guys who should have been the hardest to convince, not the easiest, but there was almost no commentary about it other than ‘they talked about it and everybody was convinced.’ Yeah, well, I’M not convinced.

    I guess my whole thing with this book is that it IS the first book I’ve read about Mormonism in more than 15 years. So my knowledge of how this compares to any other books or how accurate it is is unfortunately pretty limited. I also found it pretty unhelpful to try to figure out anything about the modern church because there’s hardly anything about it, except when he’s criticizing the council of apostles. The general run-of-the-mill Mormon also seems to be described as very conservative, which I’d like to know more about. Is this true? To what extent? Krakauer did talk about how important free-thinking is, but he described it only in relation to these guys who got revelations to kill their sister-in-law. It seemed like he was saying that free-thinking used to be important, but isn’t really anymore. I would have liked to read a better book about the modern church and Mormon society, because it’s one I know very very little about. I sort of felt like Krakauer was taking the easy way out, focusing so much on fundamentalist Mormons (and pretty much just the ones who were pretty crazy) so he didn’t have to actually discuss the real Mormon church. Is it true what he talked about, that every Mormon can theoretically have revelations from God? Do these hold the same weight as revelations from the council of apostles? What does this mean for regular everyday Mormons? How does this shape the church itself? This would be a fascinating subject to learn about! But no, we got information about crazy killers and their revelations.

    I still feel there’s a lot lacking here and it could have been a much MUCH better book. After Into Thin Air, I should have known!

  5. I read this book as well as Krakauer’s other books, personally I think he should stick to the stuff that he has actual experiences in. I’ve met him a couple times as he lives – or used to live – in Boulder where I’m from. Real nice guy, sharp, but trying to branch out into the more investigative journalism thing like you said is perhaps not his strong point.

  6. Some American Girl, I would suggest reading two books that hit on what Krauker discusses. Yes, I know they are orthodox Mormons writers, but they are also secularly educated professors of non-BYU colleges. The first one would be “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard L. Bushman. It covers much of the foundational years, as you can imagine. The other one is “The Latter-day Saint Experience in America (The American Religious Experience)” by Terryl L. Givens that is exactly what you are asking about. Of course, you can read “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” by Richard Ostling and Joan K. Ostling as a juxtaposition, but it has many of the problems Krauker has; simplistic journalistic interpretations that reduce facts to sensationalism.

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