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Book Summary: Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith

Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) traces the roots of contemporary Mormon fundamentalism through the lens of a horrendous double murder. The devotion of the Lafferty brothers is a gateway into core tenets that include divine revelation, polygamy, blood atonement, and the way Mormons act in their unique role as God’s chosen.

Introduction: Understand religious fundamentalism through a true crime story.

In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her daughter, Erica, were brutally murdered by Ron and Dan Lafferty. The brothers were part of a fundamentalist Mormon group – when they decided to kill their sister-in-law and niece, they were acting on a revelation they believed to be from God.

In this summary to Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, you’ll discover not just a crime story, but also an analysis of religious extremism.

A content warning before we begin: this summary contains radical views and graphic violence, so please proceed with caution.

The divine revelation

This was no ordinary assembly. It was a gathering of Saints – the most fervent Saints. On this day, April 5, 1984, they’d come together to validate the revelations they’d each received from God. But even these fearless crusaders were shocked by what God had revealed to Ron Lafferty.

The nine members of Onias’s School of Prophets were split. Watson and Dan Lafferty sided with their brother Ron, who’d received the divine revelation. The rest copped out.

The removal revelation, as it’s now known, left no room for doubt: God had instructed Ron Lafferty to kill his brother’s wife, baby, and two close friends. These people stood in the way of God’s work.

Ron’s friends, to his surprise, were horrified. Bernard Brady was so stunned he registered his concerns in an affidavit – just in case.

Dan Lafferty thought about it, asked questions, and then validated the revelation. As the weeks progressed, his support turned to genuine conviction. Soon Dan started to have revelations of his own. He began to see his role in Ron’s plan.

While Ron was the mouth of God, Dan was God’s arm. It was Dan who had been chosen to swing the Sword of the Most High. Family men as they were, they informed their youngest brother, Allen, that his wife and child had to go.

Allen was incensed. He would defend Brenda and little Erica with his life, he told his brothers. Brenda, a brilliant, outspoken woman who’d given up a promising career in journalism to marry Allen, was 24. Allen never mentioned the revelation to his wife.

In their deliberations, Ron and Dan openly discussed the lurid details of their plan in their mother’s dining room. Claudine, a submissive wife who’d been repeatedly abused by Ron and Dan’s father, didn’t bat an eyelid. Her husband had died from diabetes because he didn’t like conventional medicine.

Having been rebuffed by their intimate circle of friends, Ron and Dan left the School of Prophets. Their old friends had now become children of the Devil.

Joseph Smith’s 1832 revelation about The One Mighty and Strong who would put God’s house in order before His coming, was about to happen. God had chosen Ron and Dan.

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

In 1823, the angel Moroni guided 17-year-old Joseph Smith to a hill in Palmyra, New York. Buried under a rock for 14,00 years, the angel said, were golden plates inscribed with Holy Scripture in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The plates would come into Smith’s possession once he was mature and married.

Smith was in love with a girl called Emma Hale, but Emma’s father wasn’t happy about their union. He didn’t want Smith, a convicted imposter and soothsayer, to marry his beautiful daughter. So the couple eloped.

Smith had visited the hill in Palmyra every September 22, as Moroni had instructed. On his visit in 1827, Smith brought along his bride. Dressed in black, they rode in a black carriage drawn by a black horse.

Having fulfilled the conditions the angel had laid out, Smith got access to the holy writing. Using spectacles Moroni had given him, he read the ancient text to his neighbor, Martin Harris, who took on the role of scribe. Moroni retrieved the golden plates and spectacles when they’d finished the translation.

And then the worst possible thing happened: Martin Harris borrowed the translated text to show his doubting wife … and it disappeared. It took some effort for Moroni to return the plates. And this time, Moroni didn’t offer any spectacles.

So Smith relied on his experience. He made use of an old technique he’d picked up in his treasure-hunting days. He put the golden plates near him, placed his peeping stone inside an upturned hat, buried his head in it to shut out the light, and looked through a hole in the pebble. He then read out an English version of the Scripture to Emma and other clerks.

The team finished their translation in June 1829 – but Smith couldn’t cough up the printer’s $3,000 advance for 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon. In another vision, God revealed to Smith that Harris had to pay the printer. Harris had already faced his wife’s wrath due to his involvement with Smith. But even his wife couldn’t stop him from doing God’s work.

Harris sold his farm to finance the printing, and Joseph Smith formally incorporated the religion a week after the book was published. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born.

A peculiar people

Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, a Hebrew tribe left Jerusalem and set sail for America.

They were led by Lehi, who eventually picked his younger son, Nephi, to lead the tribe. Lehi’s decision didn’t go down well with Laman, the older son. Along with his followers, Laman’s skin got darker as he became more evil.

According to Smith’s revelations, the evil faction were ancestors of the Native Americans. The Lamanites killed all the Nephites – all but one, that is. This last Nephite’s name was Mormon.

Mormon’s son, Moroni, was the angel that handed Joseph Smith the golden plates at the holy site Mormons now call Hill Cumorah.

Smith’s story attracted derision from local newspapers and commentators – but it also attracted over a thousand converts in a single year from the area around Palmyra. Smith declared his church the one and only true church.

He also communicated with God on a regular basis – a skill his followers picked up. Smith’s revelations, however, were considered more sacred. They offered guidance for the establishment of his church and were published in an official dogma which he titled The Doctrine and Covenants.

Facing persecution in Palmyra, Smith received a revelation to lead God’s chosen to Zion. The Saints stopped briefly in Kirtland, Ohio, before settling in Jackson County, Missouri.

But tensions started to brew.

To the people of Jackson County, Mormons were an entitled group: they preferred to trade among themselves, voted as one bloc, and bought up a lot of land around the area. The locals also disliked that these Northerners favored the abolition of slavery.

Bloody clashes ensued, leading to the deaths of many men and women on both sides. After one such battle, Smith offered to sacrifice himself to establish peace.

He was ordered to be shot alongside some of his followers. But by this time, Mormons had begun to draw some public sympathy from Americans who thought they were being persecuted for their faith. This deterred local government officials from going on with the execution.

Encouraged by a bribe, prison officials got drunk and dozed off while the prisoners escaped. The Saints crossed over into Illinois and created a new settlement in the city of Nauvoo, Hancock County.

It wasn’t long before they enraged the locals again. But this time, the president, prophet, seer, and revelator of the church was starting to face some resistance from his home turf too.

The road to fundamentalism

Officially, the Mormon church rejects polygamy. But that’s just one side of Joseph Smith’s legacy. Polygamy is practiced by countless Mormon sects.

This division started under Smith’s own roof.

In Nauvoo, Smith started sleeping with other women. He secretly married some of them, in what he called “celestial marriages.” Men had to marry as many women as they could to create offspring and populate God’s earth, Smith told close friends.

However strongly he felt about it, though, Smith couldn’t find the courage to tell his wife. He dropped a few hints to see the reaction. It was negative. Understanding that the times hadn’t yet caught up with his audacious vision, he secretly canonized polygamy in Section 132 of The Doctrines and Covenants as one of the central principles of Mormonism.

The road to salvation lay in these spiritual marriages. Anyone who ignored this principle, man or woman, would be damned.

In 1844, a church elder named William Law sided with Emma and threatened to expose Smith in a newspaper article. Smith, acting as mayor of Nauvoo, raided Law’s office.

Smith was arrested and locked up in Carthage, Illinois, but his enemies in Hancock County broke into his cell and attacked him. He jumped out of the prison window and crashed to the ground, 20 feet below.

Polygamy’s time came in 1852 when Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, announced Smith’s secret principle to an assembly in Salt Lake City. Saints sympathizers were shocked. But before long, it became the dogma and accepted practice of the mainstream Mormon church – the church in which the Lafferty brothers were raised.

When Ron Lafferty and his brothers came across this revelation, they felt betrayed by the authorities in Salt Lake City. The church had compromised its principles to make peace with the government of the United States. Not only had it renounced polygamy – it had also allowed Black people to join the Mormon church and priesthood.

The Lafferty wives weren’t happy with their husbands’ revelation. They didn’t like the fact that they were discussing polygamy with old men in distant communes, secretly marrying their stepdaughters, and sexually abusing their kids.

Once the Lafferty brothers adopted Mormon fundamentalism, they started relying on divine provision. Ron left his job and drove around without a license, often exceeding speed limits to defy police officers. In his eyes, the law of God superseded the law of man. He traveled to Colorado City in Utah and Bountiful in Canada, and started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. His first wife had left with their kids, so he started to take other wives.

Everyone who opposed the chosen, Smith had declared, was a child of the Devil. Not able to make their husbands see reason, the Lafferty wives turned to Brenda, the youngest wife. Her interventions angered the Lafferty men.

Blood atonement

On July 24, 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty parked their Impala station wagon outside their brother Allen’s home in American Fork. July 24 is Pioneer Day, which Mormons celebrate every year to commemorate the day their ancestors marched into Utah territory back in 1847.

Ron got out and knocked on the front door – no reply. He jumped back into the car to join Dan and two companions they’d been traveling around with.

But as they drove away from Allen’s house, Dan suddenly felt an urge. It was he, Dan, that had been chosen to carry out this assignment. He turned the car around and drove back to Allen’s house.

This time, Brenda opened the door. He forced his way in and closed the door from inside. Then he attacked his sister-in-law. Ron entered the house moments later and helped his brother subdue Brenda, who passed out.

Then Dan walked into his niece Erica’s room. She was standing in her crib, burbling and smiling at her uncle. Her uncle explained to the toddler that he was doing God’s work, closed his eyes, and then slashed the baby’s throat with the instrument God had chosen: a boning knife.

Unfazed by what he’d just done, Dan washed the blood off the knife. He walked back to the kitchen, where Brenda lay motionless. He grabbed her by the hair, closed his eyes, and cut her throat too.

Drenched in blood, the brothers and their crew drove to the home of their next intended victim: Chloe Low. She wasn’t there – she and her family had decided to celebrate Pioneer Day away from American Fork – so they stole some jewelry and money, and destroyed Chloe’s collection of figurines. Chloe had angered the brothers by supporting their wives.

Richard Stowe, their final target, had done the same. But on their way to execute Richard, they missed a turn. And their companions decided they’d seen enough. They told the brothers it wasn’t God’s will. That’s why they’d missed the turn, their friends pleaded.

When their companions disappeared with their car, the brothers separated and reunited in Reno, Nevada. There, they relied on free casino food and the generosity of strangers. A driver let them sleep in his bus. Other times, free casino chips would win them a meal.

One day, they decided to check out a friend in Circus Circus casino. When they didn’t find her, they lined up to eat at the casino’s buffet. The police were waiting. But Ron and Dan didn’t resist – everything they’d done was the Lord’s work.

When Dan was learning about the early Mormon church, he discovered blood atonement had been encouraged by Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young. Spilling blood was fine, they argued, if an unbeliever committed an unforgivable sin against a Saint. Mormon legends like Porter Rockwell, also known as the Destroying Angel, killed many people on behalf of the church.

Locked up in prison, Ron had another revelation: God had asked him to kill Dan. He tried to sneak up on his brother while he slept, but retreated when his brother woke up. On another occasion, Ron brutally attacked Dan, who put up no resistance.

The brothers were separated and put in adjoining cells after this incident. Dan let Ron strangle him with a towel through his cell. He suffered injuries but survived. Then it dawned on him: Ron was the child of the Devil. Dan now thought of himself as the prophet Elijah, sent to earth to prepare the way for Christ.

The brothers were convicted in separate trials – Dan to life in prison, Ron to death.

About the author

JON KRAKAUER is the author of eight books and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. According to the award citation, “Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer.”


History, Religion, Spirituality, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, True Crime, Crime, Cults, Biography, Historical
Journalism, Sociology, History of Christianity, Murder and Mayhem True Accounts


NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, this extraordinary work of investigative journalism takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities. Now an acclaimed FX limited series streaming on HULU.

Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God; some 40,000 people still practice polygamy in these communities.

At the core of Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill a blameless woman and her baby girl. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this appalling double murder, Krakauer constructs a multi-layered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Along the way he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.


“Fantastic…. Right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Scrupulously reported and written with Krakauer’s usual exacting flair, Under the Banner of Heaven is both illuminating and thrilling. It is also the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time—and that’s meant as the highest possible praise.” —Newsweek

“Fantastic. . . . Right up there with In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Powerfully illuminating. . . . Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture. . . . An arresting portrait of depravity.” —The New York Times Book Review

“This year’s most audacious work of nonfiction. . . . A white-knuckle mix of true-crime reporting and provocative history.” —New York Post

“Krakauer writes with almost astonishing narrative force. It is hard to stop reading.” —The Baltimore Sun

“Stunningly researched. . . . Elegant reportage. . . . An evenhanded inquiry into the nature of religious belief itself.” —Newsday

“Captivating. . . . Fascinating and appalling. . . . [Krakauer] should be applauded—and read.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A great book. . . . Krakauer has found a fascinating story in plain sight, right in the heart of the American West, and told it with the narrative drive and unflinching honesty that marked his 1998 best seller, Into Thin Air.” —The Oregonian

“Jon Krakauer is at his provocative best.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“A fascinating page-turner. . . . Engrossing. . . . Krakauer’s knack for crackling narrative and taut focus . . . drives this thought-provoking story.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“A hair-raising true-crimer.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“Terrifying. . . . Startling. . . . Mov[es] deftly between past and present [and] provides a fascinating glimpse of the church today.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A powerful portrait of how two seemingly ordinary Americans became murderers.” —The Economist

“Illuminating . . . provocative. . . . Krakauer is an adept chronicler of extremists [and] the tour guide of choice for secular quests.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Marvelous. . . . A departure from Into Thin Air and Into the Wild . . . but every bit as engrossing.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Well-researched and evenhanded. . . . Thought-provoking.” —USA Today

“Startling. . . . Timely. . . . Krakauer uncovers a ghastly trail of forced marriage, polygamy, violence and mind control. . . . A chilling look at Mormon fundamentalism.” —The Charlotte Observer

“Horrific, gripping. . . . Soberly written and courageously reported.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Engrossing. . . . Incisive. . . . [Krakauer is] a very careful reporter. . . . His clear-headed, unbiased examination of the church—leavened with genuine respect—and his conclusions . . . are hard to argue with.” —Boulder Daily Camera

“One hell of a chilling read.” —Maxim

“Compelling. . . . Provocative. . . . Illuminating. . . . A gripping tale.” —The Christian Science Monitor

“A disturbing picture of Mormon fundamentalists. . . . Krakauer’s straightforward style and excellent storytelling ability make the book interesting.” —Rocky Mountain News

“A terrific read.” —Reader’s Digest

“Riveting. . . . Intriguing. . . . Breezy, smooth and vigorously written, this ambitious book is entertaining and informative. . . . Krakauer reconstructs the Lafferty brothers’ descent into fatal fanaticism magnificently, interweaving their story throughout the book and giving this wide-ranging work narrative coherence and emotional resonance. . . . [He is] a superb storyteller.” —The News & Observer

“A powerful look at how religious belief can cross the line into fanaticism.” —San Jose Mercury News

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For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.
Deuteronomy 14:2

And it shall come to pass that I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God.
The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 85
revealed to Joseph Smith on November 27, 1832

Balanced atop the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple, gleaming in the Utah sun, a statue of the angel Moroni stands watch over downtown Salt Lake City with his golden trumpet raised. This massive granite edifice is the spiritual and temporal nexus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which presents itself as the world’s only true religion. Temple Square is to Mormons what the Vatican is to Catholics, or the Kaaba in Mecca is to Muslims. At last count there were more than eleven million Saints the world over, and Mormonism is the fastest-growing faith in the Western Hemisphere. At present in the United States there are more Mormons than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. On the planet as a whole, there are now more Mormons than Jews. Mormonism is considered in some sober academic circles to be well on its way to becoming a major world religion–the first such faith to emerge since Islam.

Next door to the temple, the 325 voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir swell to fill the tabernacle’s vast interior with the robust, haunting chords of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the ensemble’s trademark song: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”

To much of the world, this choir and its impeccably rendered harmonies are emblematic of the Mormons as a people: chaste, optimistic, outgoing, dutiful. When Dan Lafferty quotes Mormon scripture to justify murder, the juxtaposition is so incongruous as to seem surreal.

The affairs of Mormondom are directed by a cadre of elderly white males in dark suits who carry out their holy duties from a twenty-six-story office tower beside Temple Square.* To a man, the LDS leadership adamantly insists that Lafferty should under no circumstances be considered a Mormon. The faith that moved Lafferty to slay his niece and sister-in-law is a brand of religion known as Mormon Fundamentalism; LDS Church authorities bristle visibly when Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are even mentioned in the same breath. As Gordon B. Hinckley, the then-eighty-eight-year-old LDS president and prophet, emphasized during a 1998 television interview on Larry King Live, “They have no connection with us whatever. They don’t belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon Fundamentalists.”

Nevertheless, Mormons and those who call themselves Mormon Fundamentalists (or FLDS) believe in the same holy texts and the same sacred history. Both believe that Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism in 1830, played a vital role in God’s plan for mankind; both LDS and FLDS consider him to be a prophet comparable in stature to Moses and Isaiah. Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists are each convinced that God regards them, and them alone, as his favored children: “a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.” But if both proudly refer to themselves as the Lord’s chosen, they diverge on one especially inflammatory point of religious doctrine: unlike their present-day Mormon compatriots, Mormon Fundamentalists passionately believe that Saints have a divine obligation to take multiple wives. Followers of the FLDS faith engage in polygamy, they explain, as a matter of religious duty.

There are more than thirty thousand FLDS polygamists living in Canada, Mexico, and throughout the American West. Some experts estimate there may be as many as one hundred thousand. Even this larger number amounts to less than 1 percent of the membership in the LDS Church worldwide, but all the same, leaders of the mainstream church are extremely discomfited by these legions of polygamous brethren. 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.

The LDS Church happens to be exceedingly prickly about its short, uncommonly rich history–and no aspect of that history makes the church more defensive than “plural marriage.” The LDS leadership has worked very hard to persuade both the modern church membership and the American public that polygamy was a quaint, long-abandoned idiosyncrasy practiced by a mere handful of nineteenth-century Mormons. The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith–still the religion’s focal personage–married at least thirty-three women, and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.

Polygamy was, in fact, one of the most sacred credos of Joseph’s church–a tenet important enough to be canonized for the ages as Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants, one of Mormonism’s primary scriptural texts.* The revered prophet described plural marriage as part of “the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on earth” and taught that a man needed at least three wives to attain the “fulness of exaltation” in the afterlife. He warned that God had explicitly commanded that “all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same . . . and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”

Joseph was murdered in Illinois by a mob of Mormon haters in 1844. Brigham Young assumed leadership of the church and led the Saints to the barren wilds of the Great Basin, where in short order they established a remarkable empire and unabashedly embraced the covenant of “spiritual wifery.” This both titillated and shocked the sensibilities of Victorian-era Americans, who tended to regard polygamy as a brutish practice on a par with slavery. In 1856, recognizing the strength of the anti-polygamy vote, Republican candidate John C. Frémont ran for president on a platform that pledged to “prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism–Polygamy and Slavery.” Frémont lost the election, but a year later the man who did win, President James Buchanan, sent the U.S. Army to invade Utah, dismantle Brigham Young’s theocracy, and eradicate polygamy.

The so-called Utah War, however, neither removed Brigham from power nor ended the doctrine of plural marriage, to the annoyance and bafflement of a whole series of American presidents. An escalating sequence of judicial and legislative challenges to polygamy ensued, culminating in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which disincorporated the LDS Church and forfeited to the federal government all church property worth more than $50,000. With their feet held fast to the fire, the Saints ultimately had no choice but to renounce polygamy. But even as LDS leaders publicly claimed, in 1890, to have relinquished the practice, they quietly dispatched bands of Mormons to establish polygamous colonies in Mexico and Canada, and some of the highest-ranking LDS authorities secretly continued to take multiple wives and perform plural marriages well into the twentieth century.

Although LDS leaders were initially loath to abandon plural marriage, eventually they adopted a more pragmatic approach to American politics, emphatically rejected the practice, and actually began urging government agencies to prosecute polygamists. It was this single change in ecclesiastical policy, more than anything else, that transformed the LDS Church into its astonishingly successful present-day iteration. Having jettisoned polygamy, Mormons gradually ceased to be regarded as a crackpot sect. The LDS Church acquired the trappings of a conventional faith so successfully that it is now widely considered to be the quintessential American religion.

Mormon Fundamentalists, however, believe that acceptance into the American mainstream came at way too high a price. They contend that the Mormon leaders made an unforgivable compromise by capitulating to the U.S. government on polygamy over a century ago. They insist that the church sold them out–that the LDS leadership abandoned one of the religion’s most crucial theological tenets for the sake of political expediency. These present-day polygamists therefore consider themselves to be the keepers of the flame–the only true and righteous Mormons. In forsaking Section 132–the sacred principle of plural marriage–the LDS Church has gone badly astray, they warn. Fundamentalist prophets bellow from their pulpits that the modern church has become “the wickedest whore of all the earth.”

Mormon Fundamentalists probably cite Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants more than any other piece of LDS scripture. Their second-most-popular citation is likely Section 85, in which it was revealed to Joseph that “I, the Lord God, will send one mighty and strong . . . to set in order the house of God.” Many fundamentalists are convinced that the one mighty and strong is already here on earth among them, “holding the scepter of power in his hand,” and that very soon now he will lead the Mormon Church back onto the right path and restore Joseph’s “most holy and important doctrine.”



Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all. To speak of a fringe implies a mainstream, but in terms of numbers, perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary America remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strands. The doomsday theme has never been far from the center of American religious thought. The nation has always had believers who responded to this threat by a determination to flee from the wrath to come, to separate themselves from the City of Destruction, even if that meant putting themselves at odds with the law and with their communities or families. . . . We can throughout American history find select and separatist groups who looked to a prophetic individual claiming divine revelation, in a setting that repudiated conventional assumptions about property, family life, and sexuality. They were marginal groups, peculiar people, people set apart from the world: the Shakers and the Ephrata community, the communes of Oneida and Amana, the followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Philip Jenkins,
Mystics and Messiahs

Snaking diagonally across the top of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is a stupendous, 277-mile rent in the planet’s hide that functions as a formidable natural barrier, effectively cutting off the northwestern corner from the rest of the state. This isolated wedge of backcountry–almost as big as New Jersey, yet traversed by a single paved highway–is known as the Arizona Strip, and it has one of the lowest population densities in the forty-eight conterminous states.

There is, however, one relatively large municipality here. Colorado City, home to some nine thousand souls, is more than five times as populous as any other town in the district. Motorists driving west on Highway 389 across the parched barrens of the Uinkaret Plateau are apt to be surprised when, twenty-eight miles past Fredonia (population 1,036, the second-largest town on the Strip), Colorado City suddenly materializes in the middle of nowhere: a sprawl of small businesses and unusually large homes squatting beneath a towering escarpment of vermilion sandstone called Canaan Mountain. All but a handful of the town’s residents are Mormon Fundamentalists. They live in this patch of desert in the hope of being left alone to follow the sacred principle of plural marriage without interference from government authorities or the LDS Church.

Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, Colorado City is home to at least three Mormon Fundamentalist sects, including the world’s largest: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. More commonly known as the United Effort Plan, or UEP, it requires its members live in strict accordance with the commandments of a frail, ninety-two-year-old tax accountant-turned-prophet named Rulon T. Jeffs.* “Uncle Rulon,” as he is known to his followers, traces his divinely ordained leadership in an unbroken chain that leads directly back to Joseph Smith himself. Although his feeble bearing would seem to make him poorly cast for the role, the residents of Colorado City believe that Uncle Rulon is the “one mighty and strong” whose coming was prophesied by Joseph in 1832.

“A lot of people here are convinced Uncle Rulon is going to live forever,” says DeLoy Bateman, a forty-eight-year-old science teacher at Colorado City High School. Not only was DeLoy born and raised in this faith, but his forebears were some of the religion’s most illustrious figures: his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were among the thirteen founding members of the Mormon Fundamentalist Church, and his adoptive grandfather, LeRoy Johnson, was the prophet who immediately preceded Uncle Rulon as the leader of Colorado City. At the moment, DeLoy is driving his thirdhand Chevy van on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. One of his two wives and eight of his seventeen children are riding in the back. Suddenly he hits the brakes, and the van lurches to a stop on the shoulder. “Now there’s an interesting sight,” DeLoy declares, sizing up the wreckage of a television satellite dish behind some sagebrush off the side of the road. “Looks like somebody had to get rid of their television. Hauled it out of town and dumped it.”

Members of the religion, he explains, are forbidden to watch television or read magazines or newspapers. The temptations of the outside world loom large, however, and some members of the faith inevitably succumb. “As soon as you ban something,” DeLoy observes, “you make it incredibly attractive. People will sneak into St. George or Cedar City and buy themselves a dish, put it up where it can’t easily be seen, and secretly watch TV during every free moment. Then one Sunday Uncle Rulon will give one of his sermons about the evils of television. He’ll announce that he knows exactly who has one, and warn that everyone who does is putting their eternal souls in serious jeopardy.

“Every time he does that, a bunch of satellite dishes immediately get dumped in the desert, like this one here. For two or three years afterward there won’t be any televisions in town, but then, gradually, the dishes start secretly going up again, until the next crackdown. People try to do the right thing, but they’re only human.”

As the TV prohibition suggests, life in Colorado City under Rulon Jeffs bears more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban. Uncle Rulon’s word carries the weight of law. The mayor and every other city employee answers to him, as do the entire police force and the superintendent of public schools. Even animals are subject to his whim. Two years ago a Rottweiler killed a child in town. An edict went out that dogs would no longer be allowed within the city limits. A posse of young men was dispatched to round up all the canines, after which the unsuspecting pets were taken into a dry wash and shot.

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Book Summary: Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith


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