|'It is a command of God to you'|
Hilary Spurling reviews Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakaer|
The Telegraph (UK)
The core of this book is an interview with a Mormon, handcuffed and shackled by the ankles in Utah State Prison, who hasn't cut his hair or shaved his beard for 18 years because he believes himself to be a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. "I'm here to prepare the way for the return of the Son of Man," Dan Lafferty explained to Jon Krakauer. "I will be the one who will identify Christ when He returns."
On July 24, 1984, Dan turned up on the doorstep of his sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, who refused to let him use her phone. "I was kind of silently talking to God," he explained to Krakauer, "and I asked, `What do I do now?' It felt comfortable to push past her and enter the house, so that's what I did.'" A few minutes later, Dan's elder brother Ron burst in to find him sitting astride Brenda on the floor, still being talked through his mission by remote control. "And I kind of said to myself, `What am I supposed to do, Lord?' Then I felt impressed that I was supposed to use a knife. That I was supposed to cut their throats." So he did, murdering first his baby niece, then her mother, with a butcher's knife supplied by Ron.
Both men insisted they had committed no crime, since they were acting on orders from heaven. Both were relatively recent converts to Mormon Fundamentalism. Both had imposed the US equivalent of Taliban law on their respective households. Their wives were no longer allowed to drive, handle money, seek medical advice or talk to anyone outside the house. Their children were taken out of school and forbidden to watch television. The Laffertys stopped paying taxes, tore up their driving licences and removed their car numberplates. Ron gave up work to live by scavenging. Dan prepared to observe the only law he recognised – the sacred command of polygamy – by taking his teenage step-daughter as a second wife.
In the Lafferty family there were six Fundamentalist brothers. Of their six wives, the only one to put up any serious resistance was the youngest, Brenda, who was also the only one with a university education. Pretty, independent and smart, Brenda was hosting a local TV news show by the age of 21, when she rashly married the charismatic Allen Lafferty without realising that marriage committed her, by his rules, to domestic slavery. When Ron's wife appealed for help, it was Brenda who advised divorce. "The Lafferty boys didn't like Brenda," her sister told Krakauer, "because she got in their way."
Operations like the Laffertys', run by divine revelation out of the back of a car in suburban America, go back directly to the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, who identified himself in 1831 as a second Mohammed prepared to reduce his enemies to "one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean". Enemies meant anyone attempting to interfere with a rule of life that defined adult Mormon males as saints, and women as their property. Smith married 40 wives in four years, many of them barely into their teens ("It is a command of God to you," he said to one furious 14-year-old who tried to object). Monogamy, homosexuality or having a black skin remain sins pretty much indistinguishable from crimes in fundamentalist communities such as Colorado City, where all authority – from church and school to the police force and prison service – still rests in Mormon hands. Krakauer documents a long history of institutionalised child abuse, abduction, incest and rape.
Under the Banner of Heaven documents the bloodsoaked underside of orthodox Mormonism's sober, industrious, clean-living image. Mormons already outnumber both Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the US. Krakauer's excellent book – a lucid, judicious, even sympathetic account not just of Mormon Fundamentalism but of the seductive power of fanaticism in general – ends with a global forecast of 300 million Mormons by the end of the century.
Originally published September 28, 2003
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