Polygamy -- called "plural marriages" by its enthusiasts -- is the doctrinal issue that has precipitated the greatest resentment, rage and ridicule against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Much else about the Mormon Church has been distressing to outsiders, including especially the intense and well-disciplined secrecy about almost every aspect of the denomination.
Though nothing about the faith is simple, the polygamy controversy is surely an onerous cross -- and possibly an unfair one -- for Mormons to bear. The principle that men should take multiple wives was official doctrine of the church until 1890. Since then, the practice has been ground for excommunication and has been practiced officially only by apostates or self-designated "Fundamentalist Mormons," who exist outside the mainstream in innumerable self-governing sects spread about the U.S. West and Canada and Mexico.
Mainstream Mormonism, with some 12 million members worldwide, about half in the United States, is the fastest growing religious denomination in this country, where there are more "Saints" than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. Abstemious, heavily tithing, emphasizing strong family solidarity and work ethic, Mormons collectively are a potent force.
The foundation of their faith is a large collection of revelations said to have been given in the 1820s by God to Joseph Smith, the founding prophet. Those doctrines are expanded or amended from time to time by further revelations from God. With a core belief that Mormons are, to the exclusion of all others, God's chosen people, they have 60,000 missionaries spread around the globe at any given time, fulfilling a lifetime requirement of two years of proselytizing.
I have known a few Mormons, but none intimately. All have struck me as having an unusual intensity -- capacity for concentration, application, work -- combined with a remarkable sense of decency. They have been people of confident peacefulness but extraordinary energy.
I have neither the experience nor the ambition to make sweeping analytic generalities about Mormons. But now comes a book -- destined for controversy -- that does so. It is Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday, 372 pages, $26). Its cast of characters share that sense of intensity -- for good, or, as Krakauer strongly implies, for evil.
Krakauer -- author of the immensely successful Into Thin Air and Into the Wild -- writes a counterpoint of two themes. One is a history of the church, from its origins till today. The other is a particularly grisly murder saga.
On July 24, 1984, Dan Lafferty and his brother Ron slashed to death Brenda Lafferty, the wife of their youngest brother, Allen, and their 15-month-old daughter, Erica. It happened in the victims' home in American Fork, Utah. Ron was the eldest of five brothers. All were brought up as strict Mormons, but Ron had broken off into his own offshoot fundamentalist sect, defying doctrines of the mainstream church, which excommunicated him, along with Dan and their followers. In defiance of the LDS strictures, Dan and Ron became active marijuana users. Ron spoke and wrote to others of elaborate instructions given him directly by God, including the orders to kill Brenda and Erica because of Brenda's defiance of their sect's mandates.
Dan was sentenced to two life terms and Ron to death. They are both still in prison. Dan spoke at length to Krakauer and others, as well as testifying. He admitted that he had killed first the child and then the mother -- but insisted on his innocence: "I was doing God's will, which is not a crime."
Exploring the other theme, Krakauer gives a succinct, brisk and clear history of Mormonism -- beginning with Joseph Smith and creation of the church. There are stories of many intricate forced marriages, and associated sexual abuse of girls from 13 upward. There are vivid, often extremely painful stories of persecution and violence both against Mormons and by them.
Krakauer declares that the purpose of the book is to examine fanaticism. "Faith-based violence was present long before Osama bin Laden, and it will be long after his demise," he writes, and concludes: "The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end -- wealth, fame, eternal salvation -- but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself."
Krakauer, who was brought up an atheist and remains a nonbeliever, writes that he had many Mormon friends in his youth. He spent three years in research and an additional year writing the book.
He writes with almost astonishing narrative force. It is hard to stop reading his text. The rhythm is good, and the sentence structure, clean. It is a powerful book, and in many ways and places a wise one. Yet I was left with a gnawing discomfort that taken as a whole the book's import is to paint mainstream Mormonism as an irrational -- almost insane -- system of belief.
Even more troublingly, Krakauer's interwoven themes place the murderous acts of the Lafferty brothers in inseparable closeness to the principles and practices of the entire church.
When galley proofs were in circulation among reviewers, the LDS released a stern but dignified rebuttal of what the church leaders took to be "Krakauer's basic arguments, his history, his assumptions, the accuracy of the facts and his conclusions. This is not a book that is notable for either its scholarship or its accuracy."
An attached essay by Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the church's Family and Church History Department, cited a long series of ostensible factual errors and false analyses or inaccurate readings and concluded: "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.' "
Krakauer responded to the LDS criticism in a well-reasoned statement that argued -- surely futilely -- that the church would serve itself and history well by releasing to public scrutiny vast archives that are held in tight secrecy. A spokesman for Doubleday, said that the firm stands "stands fully behind [Krakauer's] reporting and his scholarship" -- but that three factual errors pointed out by the Turley critique will be corrected in future editions.
With publication, the inevitable debate will intensify, and sales should proliferate. Among its many buyers will be faithful Mormons -- reading the volume, I suspect, in plain brown wrappers.