The LDS Church Does Not Want You to Watch “Under the Banner of Heaven,” now streaming on Hulu
And it doesn’t want you to read the book, either
The first edition of my book Under the Banner of Heaven was published in July 2003. Two weeks before it was released, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints circulated a preemptive takedown of the book, authored by a high-ranking church official named Richard Turley. Disseminated to newspapers, television stations, radio networks, and other media outlets throughout the United States, Turley’s screed excoriated my book as “a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history.”
Accompanying Elder Turley’s derisive five-page critique was a brief, impassioned condemnation of Under the Banner of Heaven by Mike Otterson, the director of LDS Media Relations, who called it “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern Church.” According to Elder Otterson, readers of my book “could be forgiven for concluding that every Latter-day Saint, including your friendly Mormon neighbor, has a tendency for violence. And so Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi, every Japanese a fanatic, and every Arab a terrorist.”
This week, Hulu will begin streaming a seven-episode series called Under the Banner of Heaven that was inspired by my book, and the new show has prompted a vigorous recirculation of the LDS hit piece from nineteen years ago. When I contemplate why my book so deeply offended Elders Turley and Otterson, I am reminded that the history of the LDS Church is to no small extent a history of religious persecution, and this chronicle of venomous relations between Mormons and non-Mormons explains, at least in part, why LDS leaders have denounced me as a religious bigot, and denounced my book as a violent assault on their faith: The hatred directed at Mormons in the past has left wounds so enduringly raw and painful that anyone who portrays the church of Joseph Smith in less than flattering terms is apt to be reflexively smeared as anti-Mormon by that church. Such hypersensitivity to criticism is not uncommon among Jews, Catholics, and other religious minorities that have been subjected to persecution and cruelty; it should therefore come as no surprise that Mormons might react similarly.
But illuminating unpleasant historical truths is not the same thing as bigotry. In the this essay I have endeavored to defend Under the Banner of Heaven against the specific charges made by the LDS Church through Elder Turley, whose critique is reprinted here in its entirety. After considering Turley’s allegations and my rebuttal, readers may better determine for themselves, I hope, whether my book maligns Latter-day Saints and misrepresents LDS history, as the LDS leadership claims.
First, however, I believe it might be helpful to read the last chapter of my book, which is presented immediately below.
The Concluding Chapter of “Under the Banner of Heaven” [updated in 2022]
There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time — or even knew selflessness or courage or literature — but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being
The genesis for writing this book was a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief. Because I’ve spent most of my life in the American West, in the happy company of Latter-day Saints, I decided to narrow my subject to a more manageable scope by examining belief more or less exclusively through the lens of Mormonism. I grew up with Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, which had (and has) a robust LDS community. Saints were my childhood friends and playmates, my teachers, my athletic coaches. I envied what seemed to be the unfluctuating certainty of the faith professed so enthusiastically by my closest Mormon pals, but I was often baffled by it. I’ve sought to comprehend the formidable power of such belief ever since.
I was irresistibly drawn to write about Latter-day Saints not only because I already knew something about their theology, and admired much about their culture, but also because of the utterly unique circumstances in which their religion was born: The Mormon Church was founded a mere 192 years ago, among a literate society, in the age of the printing press. As a consequence, the creation of what became a worldwide faith was abundantly documented in first-hand accounts. Thanks to the Mormons, we have been given an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate — in astonishing detail — how an important religion came to be.
I confess that the book you are now reading isn’t the book I set out to write. As originally conceived, it was going to focus on the uneasy, highly charged relationship between the LDS Church and its past. I’d even come up with a title: History and Belief. I intended to explore the inner trials of spiritual thinkers who “walk in the shadows of faith,” as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described it: How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine? How does one sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it? I was fascinated by the paradoxes that reside at the intersection of doubt and faith, and had a high regard for congenital skeptics, like Teilhard, who somehow emerged from the fray with their belief intact.
The research, however, kept pulling me onto a slightly different heading, and after fighting it for many months, I decided to surrender to this unplanned course and see where it might take me. The upshot, for better or worse, is that I wrote Under the Banner of Heaven instead of History and Belief. Who knows, maybe someday I will yet complete the latter.
I spent approximately a year writing this book, and more than three years doing the research on which the writing is based. I traveled many thousands of miles to visit the Saints’ most sacred sites, and to interview dozens of individual Mormons, Fundamentalist Mormons, and apostate Mormons face to face (I interviewed others over the telephone). Some of these people asked me to protect their privacy, and I have done so by giving them pseudonyms in these pages.
In the case of Dan Lafferty, I visited him in November 2001 at Point of the Mountain, in the maximum security unit of the Utah State Prison. After my initial interview, which lasted the better part of an afternoon, he answered countless follow-up questions, with unsettling candor, by writing me many long, detailed letters. Additionally, I reviewed thousands of pages of transcripts from the three trials and numerous hearings that ultimately determined the guilt of Dan and his brother, Ron.
In an essay titled “The Empire of Clean,” Timothy Egan, a reporter for The New York Times, observed,
In the Beehive State of Utah, nearly every town, church, and family of any standing keeps a record, a daily diary of the Mormon Dream. Typically, it is a ledger of life on two levels — one long on struggle and triumph, the story of the creation of Zion in the American West, the other more spiritual but no less detailed. They know in Orderville exactly who was hungry in 1912 and who committed adultery in 1956, but they also know whether somebody’s ancestor from the fifteenth century has been given a valid passport to eternal life. Every wagon train drama, every horrific entry from the epic, killing mistake of the handcart migration, every basketball championship over the Indian kids in Carbon County, is written down, somewhere. No state has more keepers of history, or better archives, honeycombed in climate-controlled vaults, than Utah. … Mormons have made a workaday craftsmanship of keeping the past alive. There is a record, the Saints like to say, of everything.
I availed myself of this rich history by draining my bank account in bookstores near and far. I also made several visits to the archives of the Utah State Historical Society in Salt Lake City, and the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Provo. During my reading, I was struck by the impact three writers, in particular, have made on the interpretation of Mormon history: Fawn Brodie, author of No Man Knows My History; Juanita Brooks, author of The Mountain Meadows Massacre; and D. Michael Quinn, author of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View and The Mormon Hierarchy.
Each of these historians was born into the Mormon Church, and their faith (or loss thereof, in Brodie’s case) informed and enhanced their scholarship, which is distinguished by its courageous, unflinching honesty. Brodie died in 1981, Brooks died in 1989, and Quinn died just a year ago, in 2021. Quinn’s writing lacks the eloquence of Brodie’s, or the unembellished narrative force of Brooks’, and as a consequence his books have not been widely read by the general public. The influence of his prodigious work, however, has been huge among Mormon historians. And no writer since Fawn Brodie has provoked such intense condemnation from the LDS General Authorities.
Quinn studied as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, went on to receive a doctorate from Yale, and then returned to BYU as an inspired professor of history. He first aroused the ire of LDS leaders in 1981, when he presented a now-famous lecture to the BYU Student History Association. Titled, “On Being a Mormon Historian,” it was a response to a recent attack on academics like Quinn who dared to publish work that was critical of the church’s official, extensively expurgated version of Mormon history. “The tragic reality,” he declared in his lecture, “is that there have been occasions when Church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past, but have offered to the Saints instead a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials.”
Quinn argued, “A so-called ‘faith-promoting’ Church history which conceals controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past actually undermines the faith of Latter-day Saints who eventually learn about the problems from other sources. One of the most painful demonstrations of that fact has been the continued spread of unauthorized polygamy among the Latter-day Saints during the last seventy-five years, despite the concerted efforts of Church leaders to stop it.”
Quinn pointed out that after officially renouncing the doctrine of plural marriage in 1890, the highest leaders in fact continued to sanction polygamy, covertly, for many years. And this casuistry, he insisted, has driven many Mormons into the embrace of fundamentalism.
“The central argument of the enemies of the LDS Church,” Quinn said, “is historical, and if we seek to build the Kingdom of God by ignoring or denying the problem areas of our past, we are leaving the Saints unprotected. As one who has received death threats from anti-Mormons because they perceive me as an enemy historian, it is discouraging to be regarded as subversive by men I sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators.”
The text of Quinn’s lecture, which resonated strongly among Mormon intellectuals, was printed on the front page of an underground student newspaper, infuriating LDS General Authorities in Salt Lake City and sparking a raging controversy that made the pages of Newsweek magazine. It was the beginning of Quinn’s fall from grace in the church he loved. By 1988 he was pressured into resigning his tenured professorship at BYU. And in 1993, following a highly publicized hearing by an LDS “disciplinary council,” he became one of six prominent Mormon scholars who were excommunicated from the LDS Church for apostasy. “The church wanted to send a very public message to dissidents,” Quinn says. “Their goal was intimidation, to silence dissent.”
Banishment from the church came as a harsh blow. “Even if you have all kinds of objections to church policies,” he explains, “when you’re a believing Mormon, to be excommunicated is like a form of death. It’s like attending your own funeral. You feel the loss of that sense of community. I miss it deeply.”
Quinn’s standing in the LDS Church was not helped by the fact that in the mid-1980s he revealed that he is gay; Mormon General Authorities continue to make the church a very difficult place for homosexuals. Despite Mormonism’s entrenched homophobia, and Quinn’s unsparing, clear-eyed assessment of Mormonism’s faults, his faith in the religion of Joseph Smith remains undiminished. “I’m a radical believer,” he says, “but I’m still a believer.” He seems to be one of those rare spiritual thinkers, as Annie Dillard puts it, who possess “a sort of anaerobic capacity to batten and thrive on paradox.”
“At a very early age,” Quinn acknowledges, “I developed what I call ‘a complex testimony.’ Instead of a black/white view of Mormonism, I have an Old Testament sort of faith. The writers of the Old Testament presented the prophets as very human vessels, warts and all. Yet God still chose them to be His leaders on earth. That’s how I see Mormonism: It is not a perfect church. It has huge flaws, in both the institution and the people who lead it. They are only human. And I have no trouble accepting that. It’s all part of my faith.
“On the very first page of The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote that if it contained mistakes or faults, ‘it be the mistakes of men.’ And this same thing is stated in various ways throughout the text that follows — that errors in this sacred book are possible, even likely. I have always believed that Mormonism was the one true church, but I don’t think it has ever been infallible. And I certainly don’t believe it has a monopoly on the truth.”
One of the events that led to Dr. Quinn’s excommunication was the publication, in 1987, of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, a fascinating, exhaustively researched examination of Joseph Smith’s involvement in mysticism and the occult. In the preface to a revised 1998 edition of the book, Quinn astutely observed that “many academics feel embarrassed for a scholar who even briefly acknowledges belief in the metaphysical.” He argued, nevertheless, that authors had an intellectual and ethical responsibility “to state one’s own frame of reference when writing about the metaphysical” — which he proceeded to do, succinctly describing his Mormon faith. And regarding that faith, he wrote, “I make no apologies to secular humanists or religious polemicists.”
I happen to find Quinn’s argument compelling. He’s convinced me that those who write about religion owe it to their readers to come clean about their own theological frame of reference. So here’s mine:
I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion. In fact I don’t know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.
There are some 10,000 extant religious sects — each with its own cosmology, each with its own answer for the meaning of life and death. Most assert that the other 9,999 not only have it completely wrong, but are instruments of evil, besides. None of the 10,000 has yet persuaded me to make the requisite leap of faith. In the absence of conviction, I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain — which doesn’t strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.
And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why — which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.
— Jon Krakauer, January 2003
LDS Church Response to Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” by Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
In the oft-quoted book Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), David Hackett Fischer condemns those who reach generalizations based on insufficient sampling:
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a scientist who published an astonishing and improbable generalization about the behavior of rats. An incredulous colleague came to his laboratory and politely asked to see the records of the experiments on which the generalization was based. “Here they are,” said the scientist, dragging a notebook from a pile of papers on his desk. And pointing to a cage in the corner, he added, “there’s the rat.”
Anxious to prove his own hypothesis, Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), uses the anomalous Lafferty murder case of 1984 to “look at Mormonism’s violent past” and examine “the underbelly of the United States’ most successful homegrown faith” (advance reading copy back cover). Although the book may appeal to gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook, serious readers who want to understand Latter-day Saints and their history need not waste their time on it.
Ostensibly focused on murders committed by brothers who had been excommunicated from the Church, Krakauer’s book is actually a condemnation of religion generally. The agnostic author writes, “I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion. In fact I don’t know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.” He appears to believe God is unknowable in this life. “In the absence of conviction,” he says of his failure to find faith, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life.” He acknowledges sharing with most of humanity a fear of death, a yearning “to comprehend how we got here, and why,” and an ache “to know the love of our creator.” Yet he believes “we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.” The upshot of his (un)belief system is a theme that permeates his book: “Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence . . . is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief,” that is, religion.
“There is a dark side to religious devotion that is too often ignored or denied,” he posits in the prologue. “As a means of motivating people to be cruel and inhumane — as a means of motivating people to be evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout — there may in fact be nothing more effective than religion.” Referring to the “Islamic fundamentalism” that resulted in the killings of 11 September 2001, he goes on to say that “men have been committing heinous acts in the name of God ever since mankind began believing in deities, and extremists exist within all religions.” He finds that “history has not lacked” for Muslims, “Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and even Buddhists who have been motivated by scripture to butcher innocents. Faith-based violence was present long before Osama bin Laden, and it will be with us long after his demise”.
He admits, “In any human endeavor, some fraction of its practitioners will be motivated to pursue that activity with such concentrated focus and unalloyed passion that it consumes them utterly. One has to look no further than individuals who feel compelled to devote their lives to becoming concert pianists, say, or climbing Mt. Everest.” Providing no scientific methodology for measuring extremism, he asserts that it “seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing toward religious pursuits.”
This glib assertion leads to the hypothesis for his book: “Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God — as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest” . The Lafferty case, the purported subject of the book, becomes merely an illustration of this theory.
To support his case that the “roots of their [the Lafferty brothers’] crime lie deep in the history of an American religion practiced by millions” (advance reading copy front cover), Krakauer presents a decidedly one-sided and negative view of Mormon history.
Referring to Joseph Smith’s well-known 1826 trial, for example, Krakauer asserts that “a disgruntled client filed a legal claim accusing Joseph of being a fraud” (39). This assertion shows Krakauer’s unfamiliarity with basic aspects of the trial in question, as well as his tendency to spin evidence negatively. In actuality, the trial resulted not from “a disgruntled client” but from persecutors who had Joseph hauled into court for being a disorderly person because of his supposed defrauding of his employer, Josiah Stowell. As a modern legal scholar who carefully studied the case has noted, however, Stowell “emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded” (Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 [spring 1990]). As a result, Joseph was found not guilty and discharged.
Krakauer also stretches the truth in writing about modern Church events. He attended the Hill Cumorah pageant in Palmyra, New York, and portrays it as having “the energy of a Phish concert, but without the drunkenness, outlandish hairdos . . . , or clouds of marijuana smoke” . Without citing a source, he exaggeratingly asserts that “sooner or later most Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage there”. Although the pageant is popular, most Latter-day Saints have never attended it, and most never will.
The author evinces some understanding of the Church’s doctrine and administrative structure, yet make gaffes that signal his generally poor command of the subject matter. For example, he refers to Mark E. Petersen, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as the “LDS President,” an obvious error. Krakauer shows his ignorance of the Book of Mormon and the Bible when he refers to Laban as “a scheming, filthy-rich sheep magnate who turns up in the pages of both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament.” The Old Testament Laban, who is the uncle and father-in-law of the patriarch Jacob and brother to Rebekah, lived many hundreds of years before the Laban of the Book of Mormon.
Accepting an uninformed assertion, Krakauer writes that Nauvoo, headquarters city of the Church from 1839 to 1846, possessed “sovereign rights and powers unique not only in Illinois, but in the entire nation” as a result of “a highly unusual charter.” His interpretation is not informed by recent scholarship. Glen M. Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2002) correctly notes:
During the previous two years, the Illinois legislature had granted city charters to the lead-mining city of Galena on the northern border of Illinois, to the new state capital at Springfield, and to Quincy, Nauvoo’s charitable Adams County neighbor. Prior to that, only Chicago and Alton had been issued city charters, both in 1837. Each of the charters in that succession had built upon its predecessors, creating a pattern of familiarity for Illinois legislators. Quincy’s planning committee had referenced the charters issued to Chicago and Alton and one in St. Louis, Missouri. Nauvoo’s proposal patched together provisions imitating those already approved in the three more recent franchises — Galena, Quincy, and Springfield. A lengthy treatise on the Nauvoo city council’s legislative authority was copied verbatim from the Springfield charter — a common and legitimate practice.
Krakauer acknowledges that although Joseph Smith “venerated the U.S. Constitution,” he “in both word and deed . . . repeatedly demonstrated that he, himself, had little respect for the religious views of non-Mormons, and was unlikely to respect the constitutional rights of other faiths” (81). Serious scholars of Joseph Smith, however, understand that he generally had very high regard for the rights of others. Speaking to his followers in a Sabbath service near the uncompleted Nauvoo Temple on 9 July 1843, Joseph declared, “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a [P]resbyterian[,] a [B]aptist or any other denomination. — It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul, civil and religious liberty” (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith [Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980]).
Krakauer also accepts the view that Orrin Porter Rockwell tried to assassinate former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs after Joseph Smith purportedly prophesied Boggs would die. Then he writes that “Rockwell had no difficulty eluding arrest. Neither he, nor any other Saint, was ever brought to justice for the deed.” Harold Schindler, however, in his critically acclaimed biography of Rockwell, concludes that whether Rockwell shot Boggs “is a matter for conjecture. . . . If Rockwell did fire the fateful shot, it would appear the decision was of his own making” (Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983]). Rockwell was eventually arrested on “flimsy testimony,” chained, imprisoned for months, and fed what “could only be described as hog slop.” Repeatedly, he was harassed and nearly lynched. “As the weeks passed the once husky Mormon wasted away until he was little more than an apparition. His hair grew long and shaggy, infested with vermin from his dank, tomb-like cell; his beard became matted with sweat and dirt; his eyes sank into the dark hollows of his face.” After months of suffering, he was finally brought before a judge, who informed him that the “grand jury had refused to bring an indictment against him” for the original charge but had decided to indict him for trying to escape. “Rockwell was returned to his cell to contemplate his absurd quandary: He was free of one charge, only to be tried for escaping jail when the law admitted he should not have been jailed at all.” Eventually, a jury found him guilty of attempted escape and sentenced him to five minutes in jail. He was soon ordered released and was “a free man for the first time in nine months.”
Again accepting at face value a titillating story — one that appears in Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, a chief source for his book — Krakauer writes: “In the summer of 1831 the Johnson family took Joseph and Emma Smith into their home as boarders, and soon thereafter the prophet purportedly bedded young Marinda. Unfortunately, the liaison apparently did not go unnoticed, and a gang of indignant Ohioans — including a number of Mormons — resolved to castrate Joseph so that he would be disinclined to commit such acts of depravity in the future.” Although Marinda likely became a plural wife of Joseph Smith later, Brodie and Krakauer present only part of the evidence — the portion that satisfies a lust for the sensational.
Consider the more balanced analysis in Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001):
The motivation for this mobbing has been debated. Clark Braden, a late, antagonistic, secondhand witness, alleged in a polemic public debate that Marinda’s brother Eli led a mob against Smith because the prophet had been too intimate with Marinda. This tradition suggests that Smith may have married Marinda at this early time, and some circumstantial factors support such a possibility. The castration attempt might be taken as evidence that the mob felt that Joseph had committed a sexual impropriety; since the attempt is reported by Luke Johnson, there is no good reason to doubt it. Also, they had planned the operation in advance, as they brought along a doctor to perform it. The first revelations on polygamy had been received in 1831, by historian Danel Bachman’s dating. Also, Joseph Smith did tend to marry women who had stayed at his house or in whose house he had stayed.
Many other factors, however, argue against this theory. First, Marinda had no brother named Eli, which suggests that Braden’s accusation, late as it is, is garbled and unreliable. In addition, two antagonistic accounts by Hayden and S. F. Whitney give an entirely different reason for the mobbing, with an entirely different leader, Simonds Ryder, an ex-Mormon, though the Johnson brothers are still participants. In these accounts the reason for the violence is economic: the Johnson boys were in the mob because of “the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Smith.” The castration, in this scenario, may have only been a threat, meant to intimidate Smith and cause him to leave Hiram [where the Johnsons lived].
After describing the event, Marinda wrote only, “Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission.” While it is not impossible that Marinda became Smith’s first plural wife in 1831, the evidence for such a marriage, resting chiefly on the late, unreliable Braden, is not compelling. Unless more credible evidence is found, it is best to proceed under the assumption that Joseph and Marinda did not marry or have a relationship in 1831.
Referring to the runaway federal officials of early Utah, Krakauer admits that “many . . . were corrupt to the core, and had come to Utah intending to enrich themselves on graft,” an assessment that, if harsh, has at least some basis in fact. Krakauer goes on to say that most of these officials left Utah for fear “that if they stayed they would receive an unannounced visit from Porter Rockwell and turn up dead — which in fact happened to an undocumented number of federal agents.” He does not explain how he knows about these deaths, or what credible evidence he has of their occurring, when they are by his admission undocumented.
Because the Mountain Meadows Massacre fits Krakauer’s thesis so well, he gives it generous space, even if he does so again without critically examining the facts for himself. For example, he swallows the trendy view that Brigham Young’s meeting with Indian leaders on 1 September 1857 constituted a death order for the Fancher company because “Brigham explicitly ‘gave’ the Indians all the emigrant cattle on the Old Spanish Trail — i.e., the Fanchers’ prize herd, which the Paiutes had covetously gazed upon when they camped next to the emigrants exactly one week earlier. The prophet’s message to the Indian leaders was clear enough: He wanted them to attack the Fancher wagon train. The morning after the meeting, the Paiutes left the City of the Saints at first light and started riding hard for southern Utah.”
Like other writers who want to believe this theory, he misses crucial evidence. Dimick Huntington’s account of his interactions with the Indians (the crux of this argument) suggests that someone — perhaps Brigham Young or perhaps Huntington himself — gave the native Americans the cattle on the road south. But nothing in the historical record particularizes this direction to the Fancher company. Other evidence demonstrates that the Indians in the north were also given the cattle on the road north. In other words, this so-called “smoking gun” that is the lynchpin in recent ballyhooed publications on the massacre amounts to little more than a generalized expression of the Saints’ war strategy at the time of allowing Indians to take cattle in exchange for their alliance. That is a far cry from ordering the massacre of a train of men, women, and children. Moreover, substantial evidence suggests that the Indians who participated in the famous meeting did not participate in the massacre.
Like other recent writers, Krakauer must somehow confront the fact that when Brigham Young learned about a possible attack on the train, he sent a letter ordering the southern Utahns not to meddle with the emigrants. The letter is clear on its face, though some writers, anxious to prove a circumstantial case against Brigham Young, try to make no mean yes by asserting that the order not to attack the train was really just the opposite. To further undermine the letter, Krakauer asserts: “The actual text of Brigham’s letter remains in some doubt, because the original has disappeared (along with almost every other official document pertaining to the Mountain Meadows massacre). The excerpt quoted above is from a purported draft of the letter that didn’t surface until 1884, when an LDS functionary came upon it in the pages of a ‘Church Letter Book.”
Although the letter was indeed cited in 1884, it did not first surface then, and its “actual text” does not remain “in some doubt.” Most correspondence from Brigham Young was copied immediately after it was produced and before being sent. The copies — equivalents of today’s photocopies — were made by pressing the original inked letters between wetted pages of a bound book of onion skin. The moisture caused fresh ink from the originals to seep into the onion skin, creating mirror images of the letters. A perfect mirror image of Young’s famous letter is right where it should be in Brigham’s 1857 letter press copybook. It is a contemporaneous copy and was available to and used by the prosecution in the trial that led to John D. Lee’s conviction and subsequent execution in the 1870s.
On a more recent topic, Krakauer refers to Mark Hofmann’s famous forgeries of the 1980s and asserts that “more than 400 of these fraudulent artifacts were purchased by the LDS Church (which believed they were authentic) and then squirreled away in a vault to keep them from the public eye.” This is a gross exaggeration. Actually, most of the documents acquired from Hofmann were insignificant legal or government documents. Although they were assigned a low cataloging priority because of their unimportance, they were not “squirreled away in a vault” in a deliberate attempt “to keep them from the public eye.” (See Richard E. Turley Jr., Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992].)
Although other examples could be given, these suffice to demonstrate that Krakauer does violence to Mormon history in order to tell his “Story of Violent Faith.” The vast majority of Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century, like today’s Saints, were peace-loving people who wished to practice their religion in a spirit of nonviolence, allowing “all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (The Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Article 11, first published in 1842).
— Richard E. Turley Jr., June 27, 2003
Jon Krakauer’s Rejoinder to Richard Turley’s Review of “Under the Banner of Heaven” [updated in 2022]
Although I strenuously disagree with almost all the points Richard Turley has made above, he did identify five minor errors in Under the Banner of Heaven that I would like to acknowledge:
- Alluding to an observation I made about the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Chapter Six, Turley scolds, “Without citing a source, [Krakauer] exaggeratingly asserts that ‘sooner or later most Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage there.’[sic] Although the pageant is popular, most Latter-day Saints have never attended it, and most never will.”
In this instance Turley seems to have intentionally misrepresented my words: I did not write that most Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage to the pageant (which is staged just seven nights each summer); I wrote, “Today, no less than in the nineteenth century, the Hill Cumorah is one of the holiest sites in all of Mormondom, and sooner or later most Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage here.” I was clearly referring to the place — the hill itself — not the pageant. Nevertheless, in the interest of squelching hyperbole, the offending passage in my book has been revised to read, “…the Hill Cumorah is one of the holiest sites in all of Mormondom, and great multitudes of Latter-day Saints make a pilgrimage here.”
- Citing a passage in Chapter Seven, Turley points out that I refer to “Mark E. Petersen, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as the ‘LDS President,’ an obvious error.”
Elder Turley is correct: this is an obvious error. It escaped my notice, and that of my copyeditor, when in the interest of brevity I paraphrased an utterance by Robert Crossfield, better known as the Prophet Onias, who had spoken of “President Mark E. Peterson in Salt Lake City.” Crossfield certainly knew that Peterson was never president of the church (as I do); “president” is an honorific frequently bestowed on all the LDS apostles, however, and Crossfield was using this title as a sign of respect for Elder Peterson. I carelessly muddied the waters by removing the quotation marks from his statement.
Alluding to a passage in Chapter Fifteen, Turley states, “Krakauer shows his ignorance of the Book of Mormon and the Bible when he refers to Laban as ‘a scheming, filthy-rich sheep magnate who turns up in the pages of both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament.’”
Turley is right: I mistakenly conflated Laban of The Book of Mormon with Laban of the Old Testament. I stand corrected. The former is a figure who was slain by Nephi — one of the the most admired personages in LDS scripture — in an oft-cited passage near the beginning of the Book of Mormon. Notably, this passage played a significant role in the two murders committed by Dan Lafferty. The following lines of scripture from 1 Nephi 4, in particular, helped motivate Lafferty to slash the throats of his sister-in-law and her baby daughter:
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him…. And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief…. Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
- Referring to a passage in Chapter Ten, Turley states, “Krakauer also accepts the view that Orrin Porter Rockwell tried to assassinate former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs after Joseph Smith purportedly prophesied Boggs would die. Then he writes that ‘Rockwell had no difficulty eluding arrest. Neither he, nor any other Saint, was ever brought to justice for the deed.’”
Turley correctly points out that I got part of this wrong: On August 8, 1842, Rockwell was arrested, jailed for nine months, and ultimately released without being indicted for shooting Boggs. I have revised the text to reflect the fact that Rockwell did not elude arrest, but I stand by my book’s assertion that “Rockwell was almost certainly the would-be assassin.” For a more complete account of this notorious incident, I strongly recommend Howard Schindler’s excellent biography, Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder — the same book Turley cites to criticize my portrayal of Rockwell. As Schindler writes,
One of Rockwell’s virtues was his unalloyed veracity; he did not lie. With this in mind, it is significant that no evidence has been found to show that he refuted the charge [that he shot Boggs]; he denied only that Joseph had ordered the crime. On the other hand, at least two people claimed he admitted the assassination attempt. According to one, Rockwell in later years told General Patrick E. Connor in Utah, “I shot through the window and thought I had killed him, but I had only wounded him; I was damned sorry that I had not killed the son of a bitch!”
- Citing a passage in the Prologue, Turley complains, “Krakauer refers to Mark Hofmann’s famous forgeries of the 1980s and asserts that ‘more than 400 of these fraudulent artifacts were purchased by the LDS Church (which believed they were authentic) and then squirreled away in a vault to keep them from the public eye.’ This is a gross exaggeration.”
Turley’s complaint is valid in part: The majority of the fraudulent artifacts were not placed in a vault, but rather in other places that were inaccessible to the probing eyes of journalists and scholars, and the text of my book has been corrected to reflect this. The LDS Church has a well-documented policy of suppressing documents it deems to be sensitive, however, and the more germane part of my statement needs no emendation. As Turley admits in his own analysis of the Hofmann incident (a book titled Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, published in 1992), the church was duped into acquiring at least 445 of Hofmann’s forgeries. Some of these fake documents were secretly purchased by the church under the supervision of the LDS First Presidency, which believed the papers to be genuine; other forged documents were obtained by sympathetic collectors working in concert with the First Presidency, and subsequently donated to the church. And a large number of these papers were archived in places where knowledge of their existence could be confined to a small handful of men in the church’s innermost circle.
Moreover, one of the most important sets of documents in the Hofmann case — the so-called McLellin collection, an assortment of nineteenth-century papers and journals believed to be quite damaging to the church — did in fact turn up in the vault of the LDS First Presidency, concealed so effectively that it almost escaped notice altogether. In 1985, during a clandestine meeting with a member of the First Presidency, Mark Hofmann announced that he had discovered the long-lost personal papers of LDS apostle William McLellin, a close companion of Joseph Smith who was excommunicated in 1838 following an acrimonious rift with the prophet. Hofmann offered this bogus McLellin collection to the church, and officials at the highest levels of the LDS hierarchy surreptitiously arranged for Hofmann to receive $185,000 in payment. After taking the money, however, he repeatedly failed to deliver the promised documents — because, it later transpired, he had not yet undertaken the difficult task of forging them. When Hofmann was eventually commanded to turn over the McLellin collection or immediately repay the $185,000, he panicked and killed two blameless, unsuspecting Mormons with pipe bombs in a desperate attempt to escape the bind. He was arrested soon thereafter, and the state allowed him to plead guilty to second degree murder, which enabled Hofmann to dodge a likely death sentence, and enabled the LDS Church to avoid a public trial that would have severely tarnished both the church and its highest leaders. Which is how Mark Hofmann became Dan Lafferty’s cellmate in the Utah State Prison.
Ironically, six months after Hofmann’s arrest, the LDS Church made what Turley’s book describes as “a startling discovery:” An examination of the First Presidency’s vault by church officials unearthed the genuine McLellin collection — the real thing. These officials concluded that the LDS Church had obtained McLellin’s actual papers back in 1908 and hidden them in the deepest recesses of this notorious vault. Hofmann, it turned out, had murdered two people over his inability to meet the church’s demands for a set of documents it already possessed. As Turley sheepishly acknowledged, “the church had owned McLellin’s journals and manuscripts all along.”
Presumably, the First Presidency’s vault holds other historically significant documents as well, but Turley has not released any information about such documents, or even acknowledged that such documents exist.
I am grateful to Elder Turley for pointing out the five errors listed above, which were rectified as soon as I became aware of them. All copies of Under the Banner of Heaven printed after July 7, 2003 include these corrections.
I take strong issue with the other criticisms that form the bulk of Turley’s denunciation, however. Some of the “errors” he alleges are no more than honest differences of opinion. And several of his allegations seem to be part of a deliberately misleading attempt to impugn my credibility:
- Referring to Joseph Smith’s momentous 1826 trial, Turley pronounces, Krakauer asserts that “a disgruntled client filed a legal claim accusing Joseph of being a fraud. This assertion shows Krakauer’s unfamiliarity with basic aspects of the trial in question, as well as his tendency to spin evidence negatively. In actuality, the trial resulted not from ‘a disgruntled client’ but from persecutors who had Joseph hauled into court for being a disorderly person because of his supposed defrauding of his employer, Josiah Stowell. As a modern legal scholar who carefully studied the case has noted, however, Stowell ‘emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded’ (Gordon A. Madsen, Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting, Brigham Young University Studies 30 [spring 1990]). As a result, Joseph was found not guilty and discharged.”
If anyone is spinning the evidence here, it is Turley. A review of court records shows that the arrest and trial resulted from a warrant issued by Peter G. Bridgman, a nephew of Stowell’s, who accused Joseph Smith of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.” And contrary to Turley’s contention, these records indicate that Joseph did not beat the rap.
The most balanced and authoritative analysis of the trial to date — “Rethinking the 1826 Judicial Decision,” a paper by LDS scholar Dan Vogel — persuasively refutes Gordon A. Madsen’s conjecture, cited by Turley, that “Joseph was found not guilty and discharged.” Turley is entirely correct, however, in stating that Josiah Stowell “emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded.” Indeed, nobody on either side of the argument disputes that Stowell sincerely believed Joseph’s claims to be a money digger and crystal gazer endowed with magical powers; according to the historical record, Stowell swore under oath that he “had the most implicit faith in the prisoner’s [i.e., Joseph’s] skill.”
Thus, not only did the court almost certainly find Joseph guilty in 1826, but Stowell’s unambiguous testimony leaves no doubt that Joseph was employed as a crystal gazer shortly before he founded the Mormon Church. Which underscores historian Dale Morgan’s astute observation that, “from the point of view of Mormon history, it is immaterial what the finding of the court was on the technical charge of being ‘a disorderly person and an imposter’; what is important is the evidence adduced, and its bearing on the life of Joseph Smith before he announced his claim to be a prophet of God.”
- Referring to my statement in Chapter Ten that Nauvoo possessed “sovereign rights and powers unique not only in Illinois, but in the entire nation” as the result of “a highly unusual charter,” Elder Turley wrongly asserts that “my interpretation is not informed by recent scholarship.”
Actually, I based the passage in question largely on two scholarly treatises published in Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited: Nauvoo in Mormon History. In the first of these discourses, “The Kingdom of God in Illinois: Politics in Utopia,” historian Robert Bruce Flanders writes that although the Nauvoo city charter was “a typical charter for the time and place,” it “was manipulated in practice to produce a quasi-independent municipal government that seemed to rival the sovereignty of the state itself.” In the second discourse, “The Nauvoo Charter: A Reinterpretation,” James L. Kimball Jr. — the senior librarian at the main LDS library in Salt Lake City — explains that Nauvoo came into existence as a
result of special concessions granted to the city by the Illinois General Assembly on December 16, 1840, in the form of a city charter.
Among other powers, the Nauvoo City Council was granted authority to pass any laws not repugnant to the Constitution of the United States or the constitution of Illinois. This provision exempted the city fathers from the necessity of adhering to state laws in enacting ordinances, thereby making the Mormon capital truly a state within a state…. Most Mormons who have written on the subject characterize the charter as “the most liberal ever granted to any American city.”…
The Nauvoo charter had one provision that was significantly different from those of all the other six charters of the period, and that was the section allowing the city council not only to appoint city officers (common in many charters) but also “to remove them from office at pleasure.” This feature pointedly illustrates the Mormon wish to protect themselves against any contingency that might seem inimical to their existence as a people in a city of their own creation…. Joseph Smith asserted, “The city charter of Nauvoo is of my own plan and device. I concocted it for the salvation of the Church.” Whatever merit these assertions may have, the Nauvoo charter provisions were not, as some historians have said, “unheard of.”… The fault of the city charter lay not so much in its content as in the manner in which it was interpreted and used by the city council.
- Referring to a passage in Chapter Eleven of my book, Elder Turley protests, “Again accepting at face value a titillating story — one that appears in Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, a chief source for his book — Krakauer writes: ‘In the summer of 1831 the Johnson family took Joseph and Emma Smith into their home as boarders, and soon thereafter the prophet purportedly bedded young Marinda. Unfortunately, the liaison apparently did not go unnoticed, and a gang of indignant Ohioans — including a number of Mormons — resolved to castrate Joseph so that he would be disinclined to commit such acts of depravity in the future.’ Although Marinda likely became a plural wife of Joseph Smith later, Brodie and Krakauer present only part of the evidence — the portion that satisfies a lust for the sensational.”
If I may correct Elder Turley, my main source for the near-castration of Joseph in 1832 by an enraged Ohio mob was not Fawn Brodie’s admirable book (which has been vilified by LDS leaders ever since its publication), but rather a first-hand account of the mobbing written by Marinda Johnson’s older brother, Luke Johnson, published in the Deseret News on May 19, 1858. I relied, too, on an account of the assault provided by Joseph Smith himself that appears in the prophet’s autobiographical History of the Church. I’m surprised, therefore, that Turley would accuse me of stooping to “titillation” for recounting an event that has been frequently reported in publications sanctioned by the LDS Church. Does he believe that Joseph Smith and the church-owned Deseret News were endeavoring to “satisfy a lust for the sensational” when they published accounts of the Ohio mobbing?
Turley admonishes me for seconding the opinion that the attack may have been motivated by the mob’s belief that “the prophet had been too intimate with Marinda,” as Todd Compton phrased it. Yet Turley himself concedes (in his citation of Compton) that there is widespread agreement that Joseph Smith made a habit of entering into sexual relationships with “women who had stayed at his house or in whose house he had stayed.” And the prophet’s own diary confirms that Marinda was in fact later sealed to Joseph as a plural wife.
Turley endorses an alterative theory put forward by Compton — a theory that has nothing to do with sex: Turley seems to insinuate that the assault occurred because Marinda’s brothers thought Joseph was scheming to defraud them of their home and property. While it is true that Joseph fled Ohio in 1838 in the middle of the night, never to return, after a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of banking fraud, the fraud charge wasn’t filed until six years after the castration attempt. In the final analysis, the circumstantial evidence suggesting that the mob was motivated by rumors that Joseph was trying to steal the Johnson family home is much weaker than the circumstantial evidence suggesting that the mob was motivated by rumors that Joseph had been intimate with Marinda Johnson.
- Referring to Chapter Eighteen of Under the Banner of Heaven, Elder Turley grumbles that “Because the Mountain Meadows Massacre fits Krakauer’s thesis so well, he gives it generous space, even if he does so again without critically examining the facts for himself.”
Actually, I have examined the facts for myself, quite carefully, and I find the version of the tragedy offered by John D. Lee, Juanita Brooks, and Will Bagley (my primary sources for Chapter Eighteen) to be much more credible than the versions offered by Turley and other spokesmen for the LDS Church over the years.
The Mormon leadership still contends, as it has always contended, that the LDS Church bears absolutely no responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. On September 11, 1999 (the calamity’s 142nd anniversary), the church staged an elaborate public ceremony at Mountain Meadows to dedicate a new memorial to the massacre victims. Near the end of the ceremony, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley emphasized that although the church had built and paid for the memorial, “that which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day.”
In Richard Turley’s assessment, I am a religious bigot who wrote Under the Banner of Heaven as “a condemnation of religion generally,” and the Mormon faith in particular. It saddens me that Elder Turley, speaking for the LDS leadership (and by extension for the church as a whole), has elected to regard my book in such a reductionist light. I believe it is impossible to comprehend the actions of the murderous Lafferty brothers, or any other Mormon Fundamentalist, without first making a serious effort to plumb their theological beliefs, and that requires at least a rudimentary grasp of LDS history — however disquieting — along with some background on the complex teachings of the religion’s remarkable founder. The life of Joseph Smith and the history of his church may be considered from myriad perspectives, of course. And therein lies the basis for the Mormon leadership’s acute unhappiness with my book.
The men who run the modern LDS Church deem the history of their religion to be sacred, and have long tried to retain tight proprietary control over how that history is presented to the world. Indeed, LDS leaders have explicitly stated that they believe accounts of Mormon history should be, above all else, “faith promoting” — that is to say, accounts of Mormon history should be celebratory rather than critical, and should downplay, omit, or deny sensitive or unsavory aspects of that history. As Apostle Boyd Packer (second in line to become LDS President and Prophet at the time) declared in an infamous 1981 speech, “There is a temptation… to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful…. In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary…. In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it.” This war is for the minds and souls of the earth’s population — a war that Latter-day Saints wage with all the resources at their disposal.
Dissent from official teachings is not tolerated in the LDS Church. Faithful, dedicated Saints who dare to raise touchy questions about church doctrine or history face excommunication and ostracism. The LDS First Presidency has established an internal investigative body with an appropriately Orwellian name, the Strengthening Church Members Committee, which maintains secret files on Mormons who dare to criticize the church. Directed by two members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the Strengthening Church Members Committee scrutinizes letters to the editor, political activities, statements made to reporters, and published writings by members of the church, among other behavior. Students at Brigham Young University are even recruited to spy on suspect professors. “No other sizable religion in America monitors its own followers in this way,” write Richard and Joan Ostling in their scrupulously balanced book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. “The files are only one aspect of a meticulous system of internal discipline through which contemporary Mormonism operates more like a small cult than a major denomination.”
Because the Mormon leadership is so obsessed with controlling how the Mormon past is interpreted and presented, histories sanctioned by the LDS Church tend to be extensively censored. In 1997, for example, the church released a manual (published in twenty-two languages, and designated as required reading for virtually every Mormon adult) titled the Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, in which this great Mormon leader was deliberately portrayed as being monogamous — despite the fact that few scholars, Mormon or otherwise, would dispute that Young was actually married to at least twenty women, and was probably married to more than fifty. Even a cursory survey of other LDS-sanctioned publications will reveal a similarly disturbing sanitization of the historical record. Journalists and historians who publish versions of Mormon history that deviate from the unremittingly expurgated versions put forward by the church are routinely and vigorously attacked, ad hominem — as I have been attacked for writing Under the Banner of Heaven.
At any given moment more than 50,000 Mormon missionaries are roaming the globe, closely supervised by church leaders back in Utah, intent on converting the world to Mormonism. These missionaries and their superiors aggressively assert that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is mankind’s “one true church,” and that all other religions are false. If the Latter-day Saints are sincere in making such audacious claims — if Mormons aspire to convince non-believers that their religion is more valid than other faiths, and that the doctrines of Joseph Smith are truly handed down from God — it seems to me that the church should open its entire archives to all interested parties, and actively encourage a vigorous, unfettered examination of Mormondom’s rich and fascinating past.
The men who guide the LDS Church and its nearly 17 million members adamantly believe otherwise, however, and do everything in their considerable power to keep crucial aspects of the church’s history concealed in the shadows. How such a policy benefits either Mormons or Gentiles is difficult to understand.
— Jon Krakauer
This piece was adapted from my book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A story of violent faith