Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” about the history of the Mormon Church, the relationship of Mormons to polygamy, and murders committed because of either mental illness or religious fervor has to be one of the most fascinating non-fiction books that I’ve read.
After “Under the Banner of Heaven” was published, the Mormon Church went on the offensive and accused Jon Krakauer of fabricating and exaggerating information to make his case against the Mormon Church seem stronger. (This isn’t the first time that one of Krakauer’s books has come under attack; the same happened after the publication of “Into Thin Air.”) In “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Krakauer details the history of the LDS Church and its standoff with the United States government as well as attacks on American wagon trains heading out west.
Joseph Smith, who heard the voice of Moroni and consequently started the Mormon Church, didn’t fare too well in Krakauer’s account. The founder of the Mormon religion took multiple wives--some of which were underage--without the knowledge of many who believed in his prophecies. Because of the polygamy within the Mormon Church at the start of the religion, the US government under President Buchanan targeted the Mormon religion.
Krakauer really shines in the book when he describes the fundamentalist Mormon communities that we hear so much about in the news today; he interviewed both men and women who were part of fundamentalist communities. The worst of the fundamentalist Mormon Church is the forced marriages of young girls who are told that it is God’s will that they get married.
Krakauer continues on the theme of religious “voices” and prophecies throughout the book and does an excellent job of showing how difficult it is to determine whether strange beliefs in religious guidance is the result of a person being told their whole life that the earth is 6,000 years old or whether hearing voices from God is the result of an actual mental illness. He highlights a double homicide committed by the Lafferty brothers after they were ordered to kill by God.
More than likely, having God dictate to you personally is the result of a combination between a mental illness and an unusual spiritual belief. In a religion like Mormonism where God is known for speaking directly to His believers, the line between mental illness and spirituality becomes increasingly blurry. That said, in the case of the murders in the novel, there is little doubt in my that at least one of the murderers was mentally ill at the time the murder was committed. (His actual diagnosis was NPD.)