“Under the banner of heaven” falls short, say religious scholars, but it gives Latter-day Saints a lesson

The FX/Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven has created a social media storm among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as alumni and church observers.

It tells the story of the gruesome murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter Erica in 1984 at the hands of her husband’s two brothers. The story builds on journalist Jon Krakauer’s bestseller of the same name, which argues that religion is based on faith rather than reason, and thus all religion (especially Mormonism) inevitably leads to violence.

Three religious scholars—Patrick Mason, Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University; author and researcher Jana Riess of Religion News Service; and Janan Graham-Russell, who recently completed a fellowship in Mormon studies at the University of Utah – met this week to discuss the conclusions of the series and book.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Mormon Land podcast.

What do you think of the book the series is based on?

mason • Krakauer is a phenomenally good writer. I found his research to be pretty good, especially when he focused on the story of Lafferty himself. And I actually think that his research on Mormon history and the way he knows how to translate it for a general audience is obviously quite effective as evidenced by the book sales. I actually liked the book better than many of my colleagues and colleagues in the field and in the Church. But his overall argument goes far beyond what the evidence can actually support.

reed • I’m more negative about the book than Patrick. Yes, it’s well written and a very quick read. But for me, the fact that Krakauer drew a seemingly straight line between Mormon violence in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s and this incident of Mormon violence in 1984, without ever really dealing with the massive sea, changed that what the church has been through in these decades ruins the whole book. It’s not history. The story records the change over time and tries to interpret it as best as possible. And to me, Krakauer seems to present his book as a story, when in fact it isn’t.

Graham Russell • I think Krakauer really misses the point of how history is told. Whenever I think about this book, I hear my advisor’s voice saying in my head, “You know, that’s not how history is written.” There’s that past and that present, and a series of points along the way. …The same applies to the series. They have these quick cuts of Joseph Smith and Emma Smith, and it’s these quick cuts, and it can be a bit confusing at times, but it really tries to support this point where 19th century Mormonism is really influential with what happened to the Lafferty brothers.

(Photos courtesy) From left: Patrick Mason, Jana Riess and Janan Graham-Russell.

In the Book of Mormon there is the story of Nephi killing Laban with the voice of God in his head. And of course there is a story in the Bible about Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you think these stories lead believers to defend what they see as righteous violence?

mason • Violence pervades Latter-day Saint scriptures, both ancient and modern. For me, one of the things that the show can do is maybe open up a conversation about it, so we can talk more honestly and openly and deal with it. That could be a really healthy thing. For the most part, the violence in our scriptures and in our past is one of those things, “we don’t talk about Bruno.” We just push it aside and it’s not comfortable. We don’t really have the tools to talk about it. … There is a connection to the Laffertys because Dan Lafferty actually said he saw himself in Nephi’s role in doing this … My disciples, many of whom are Latter-day Saints, said, “We don’t even have that over that pondered way. It was just a story we read…. about faith, about obedience to God, about that kind of thing. We never thought about that [Nephi] was like beheading someone and the blood and the violence, the ethical dimensions of it.”

reed • I think it would be helpful if we said to the Primary children, “Man, that’s a complicated story, and we really don’t want you to go and behead your friend just because you think God told you to has.” But we don’t have the conversation. And so I agree that if something good would come of this, it would be that we start addressing issues of violence that, frankly, are in every religious tradition.

Graham Russell • The LDS Church has really struggled with this for quite some time. And that’s how you know when you have someone masquerading as Captain Moroni [Capitol] Insurrection, it’s not out of nowhere that these stories are marinating in this larger Mormon culture, thinking through faith and obedience and what that means to be a Latter-day Saint and also encourage violence… We need to think about the violence of dealing with Indigenous Native Americans , the “Lamanites” … and about priesthood and temple restrictions on black people and the kind of violence that was cultivated in the church, so to speak. Having such conversations would be so good for the Church.

The idea of ​​personal revelation is the foundation of Mormon theology. It’s a beautiful idea for many, but also fraught with potential dangers. What could the church do to pay attention?

mason • What religious communities do is they build all kinds of structures and safeguards to protect themselves from this extremism, to protect themselves from the most radical impulses that actually help to foster religious devotion. I think there’s a lot to it. In Mormonism in particular, personal revelation is an enormously important source of authority, but it is not an exclusive source of authority. It has to be in conversation with Scripture, it has to be in conversation with the teachings of the prophets, it has to be in conversation with the church. So if Mormonism is working properly, all of these things should check the worst impulses or the most extreme impulses, and conversely, personal revelation should check prophetic authority. All of these things should work in balance.

Graham Russell • What do you do when people have different ideas about what a particular scripture means? When we reflect on the meaning of dark skin, the LDS Church today says that it is a sign of a type of facial expression. But a few decades ago, it meant something else entirely. … I think it’s a really important conversation in terms of these checks and balances. But even within this – and it is not just Mormonism – the power of interpretation has meant inclusion or exclusion of someone.

reed • I was just thinking about Christopher Blythe’s book, Terrible Revolution, which takes a really interesting look at revelation in Mormon history and some of that extremism. One of the points he makes is that in the 19th century it was far more common to stand up in sacrament meeting and share the personal revelation they had about great spiritual issues. Not only have you received personal revelation for yourself or for your children, but also for the world and the end times and all these other subjects. And the Church began to really strongly discourage and urge that these discussions be private… On the one hand, that’s good in that it curbs extremism, on the other hand, it makes it private. Instead of having the checks and balances Patrick talked about, we’re not subjecting any of that to community scrutiny. We just leave it out there and people can form their own very weird beliefs as if that’s the norm.

To hear the full podcast, go to To read a full transcript and get more exclusive Mormon Land content, go to “Under the banner of heaven” falls short, say religious scholars, but it gives Latter-day Saints a lesson

Joel McCord

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