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The Perils of Revelation without Reason

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The Perils of Revelation without Reason

John Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Doubleday, 2003, 373 pages.

In the prologue to his book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith , best-selling author John Krakauer asks:

How could an apparently sane, avowedly pious man kill a blameless woman and her baby so viciously, without the barest flicker of emotion? Whence did he derive the moral justification? What filled him with such certitude? (p. xxi) 

"[Krakauer] discovered a world of extremes – extreme lifestyles: including not only polygamy, but abuse, fraud, child brides, arranged marriages and societal isolation; extreme control: where one man, accepted as a prophet, dictated clothing styles, prohibited television and ordered marriages"

Krakauer was referring to Dan Lafferty, a fundamentalist Mormon who brutally murdered his sister-in-law and her 15 month old baby girl in July of 1984. Krakauer interviewed Lafferty in prison at length and was disturbed and fascinated with Lafferty’s calm attitude toward the killings, and his absolute lack of remorse. He notes:

Like his older brother, Ron, Dan Lafferty was brought up as a pious Mormon. “I’ve always been interested in God and the kingdom of God,” he says. “It’s been the center of my focus since I was a young child.” And he is certain God intended for him to kill Brenda and Erica Lafferty: “It was like someone had taken me by the hand that day and led me comfortably through everything that happened. Ron had received a revelation from God that these lives were to be taken. I was the one who was supposed to do it. And if God wants something to be done, it will be done. You don’t want to offend Him by refusing to do His work” (p. xxi).

Answers and Extremes

The quest for answers drove Krakauer deep into the history and the religious and social culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church). It also took him into the shadowy world of the fundamentalist Latter day Saints (FLDS) that have split off from the Utah-based church and continue to practice polygamy based on the original revelations and teachings of the first several Mormon prophets. Here he discovered a world of extremes – extreme lifestyles: including not only polygamy, but abuse, fraud, child brides, arranged marriages and societal isolation; extreme control: where one man, accepted as a prophet, dictated clothing styles, prohibited television and ordered marriages; all of which was based on extreme beliefs: where men regularly spoke for God, dictating the faith and practice of their families and followers, even controlling whether they lived or died.

Krakauer’s book is largely about the power of personal messages from God, both in the lives of those who wield the power of divine revelation and those who submit to it. And with the power, the great peril of accepting such revelations uncritically and unquestioningly.

Mormon Revelation Then and Now

Krakauer’s narrative intersperses sections of early Mormon history under the leadership of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young with stories taken from the headlines of yesterday’s news, weaving them together and putting the latter into the broader context of Mormon religion and culture. A common thread throughout is the LDS Church’s teaching that a person can and should receive personal revelation on matters of fact and faith. Alongside that is the concept that personal revelation, known as receiving a “testimony” or “witness,” is often considered infallible, placing the issue at hand beyond reason and factual evidence. The result is that for many Latter-day Saints, truth is confirmed and often determined primarily by feelings, allowing each individual to be the final arbiter of what is true for himself. Once a person becomes convinced their particular subjective experience is from God, no amount of reason, evidence, or facts can dissuade them from whatever “truth” is proven by the experience. As Krakauer found, “Common sense is no match for the voice of God” (p. xxiii).

The impact in part of this epistemology on the great majority of LDS people is that it allows them to have a dismissive attitude toward unsettling factual information related to their faith. It is not uncommon to have LDS faithful respond to DNA, archaeological, anthropological and literary evidence that undermines the historicity of the Book of Mormon and other LDS scripture, by saying ‘I prayed about it and have a “testimony” (internal feeling) that it is true and that settles it for me.’ However, Krakauer was drawn to the way it affected others like Dan and Ron Lafferty, who on July 24, 1984 (Mormon Pioneer Day), brutally cut the throats of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. Though at one time Dan and Ron were ardent and active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, their personal study of Joseph’s revelations, and their unorthodox applications of the same, led Mormon leaders to excommunicate them in 1983, though they continued to believe in both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, their revelations, which they believed came from God, included specific instructions to kill their sister-in-law Brenda, her 15 month baby girl, Erica and at least two other persons.

Krakauer also includes a chapter on Elizabeth Smart’s abductor, Brian David Mitchell, aka Emmanuel (who kidnapped her at knifepoint at age 14 to be a plural wife in obedience to revelation), as well as sections on the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint communities under the leadership of Rulon Jeffs and now his son Warren, the LeBaron clan and other self-proclaimed prophets in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. In each case, their revelatory experiences led them to engage in morally reprehensible and violently criminal activities, all in the name of God.

LDS Church leaders launched a preemptive strike against the book, circulating their critique of it two weeks before it was scheduled to appear in stores. Elder Richard E. Turley, Jr., managing director of the LDS Family and Church History Department called Under the Banner of Heaven, “a condemnation of religion generally” and advised that “Although the book may appeal to gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook, serious readers who want to understand Latter-day Saints and their history need not waste their time on it.”  Krakauer provided a detailed response to the LDS Church’s criticisms. Turley protests that these are extreme examples and involve radically fringe and now excommunicated members. Krakauer agrees, but maintains they nonetheless demonstrate the potential consequences of consistently applying the LDS means for knowing and testing truth and taking it to its logical ends. If spiritual truth can only be confirmed by subjective experience, and once thus experienced can never be critiqued or otherwise evaluated, then any activity or practice is possible and ultimately justifiable. If there is no outside standard for truth to which one will submit their own feelings and subjective experiences, nothing, even murder, is outside the realm of being spiritually justified.

Too Broad a Brush

However, what Krakauer does not say often enough is that the overwhelming majority of mainstream LDS people, while adhering tightly to the importance of personal revelation, would never dream of following it to such extremes. In this he runs the risk of painting too broadly with the extremist brush. He does note that when Mormon families gather, even for large events like the Hill Cumorah pageant, “Order, needless to say, prevails. This is a culture that considers obedience to be among the highest virtues” (p. 65), and this obedience includes adherence to both moral and civil laws. But such acknowledgments are few and far between, and tend to get lost among the multiple episodes of violence woven into Kraukauer’s narrative.

Krakauer also fails to acknowledge a distinction between Mormonism’s subjective epistemology, and that of faith traditions that are Bible-based. He indiscriminately lumps the whole of religious experience together, charging that “all religious belief is a function of nonrational faith” (p. 68) and in doing so misses a crucial point of difference between the LDS faith and the churches and denominations that make up much of Protestant and Catholic Christianity.

For the latter, truth can be and is often confirmed and supported by subjective spiritual experiences, but Truth is always ultimately determined by God’s objectively revealed standards found in the Bible. The unreliability of feelings and the deceitfulness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9) mandates that spiritual experiences or revelations, even those of a renowned leader or self-acclaimed prophet, be compared with the objective revelation already at hand. For example, Joseph Smith’s justification of sexual relationships with teenage girls, saying “God told me to,” should have been rejected by anyone familiar with the inspired teaching of Jesus’ apostles who clearly declared that anything but marital monogamy was unacceptable to God. Therefore, whatever the source of Joseph’s subjective messages to repeatedly violate his marriage covenant with Emma, as an orthodox, Bible-based Christian, I have to conclude it wasn’t God.

Do those of Bible-based faith ever go against the instructions of their Holy Writ? Yes, unfortunately, and far too often. However, when they do they are acting inconsistently with their epistemological base and are in violation of teachings of their leader, Jesus Christ. However, when Mormon fundamentalists, following the teaching and example of Joseph Smith, receive subjective revelations and act on them, even to the point of child abuse, rape and murder, they are being entirely consistent with their epistemological system which says, what you feel in your heart to be true, is true, regardless of the outside evidence or previous revelation that contradicts it or call it into question.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a fascinating, albeit grim, look at the tremendous power and appeal of personal revelatory experiences, and how these has been a significant factor in LDS and FLDS faith and history. While failing to make enough distinctions between people of faith and religious fruitcakes, Krakauer nonetheless clearly exposes the grave dangers of yielding to subjective experiences which go against God-given reason and the factual evidence of the objective reality He has created.