I just finished reading a book called “Under The Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. The subtitle is “A Story of Violent Faith.” It’s about the Mormon religion…from its inception in the mid-1800’s, by Joseph Smith, up to the present day. The book deals with Mormon Fundamentalism, which I didn’t know much about. I did know about the “polygs” that live in southern Utah and Northern Arizona…how they sell their barely-teenage daughters into multiple marriages, and how young 13 or 14 year-old girls are raped and beaten by middle-aged men with dozens of wives. It’s a horrible story, but the book tells about even worse things. Mormon fundamentalists are splintered into numerous small sects, each with their own “prophet” who talks to God. In fact, the whole Mormon religion is based on “revelations” from God. The founder Joseph Smith had 135 of them that are collected in one of the Mormon holy books called “The Doctrine and the Covenants.”. When he was in his forties, not long before he was murdered, he had a hankering for some young stuff, so God told him that polygamous marriages were not just permissible, they were essential if you wanted to get into heaven. Joe’s wife didn’t agree, but he managed to have a few virgins before he was blown away.
The government came down hard on the Mormons later and made them renounce polygamy, but a few fanatics disagreed and split off from the main church, which retaliated by excommunicating them. They were the founders of the fundamentalist sects, each of which believes that they are the “One True Mormon Church.”
The book focuses on the members of one sect that were trying to do “the Work” of converting the church back to Smith’s ideas…practicing polygamy, etc. The Lafferty family included two brothers who were very much involved in this. Ron and Dan were fanatics, but their brother Allen and his wife Brenda were not, and Brenda was openly defiant of the whole business. Ron had a “revelation” that Brenda and her 18-month-old daughter needed to be “removed”. God told him to do this. He shared his revelation with his brother Dan, and after much praying, they went to her house, beat her until she was almost dead and slit her throat and her daughter’s.
Eventually, they were apprehended, tried and convicted and sentenced to death. But as their lawyers were going through the endless appeals, a higher court overturned Ron’s conviction, saying that he was clearly insane (although he had not allowed his lawyers to plead insanity or even temporary insanity at the trial.) So, they had to re-examine him and re-do the whole trial. And this is the interesting part: One of the psychiatrists for the prosecution said that Ron exhibited all the characteristics of a sane individual, except that he claimed that God had directed him to do the killings, which he admitted. Now, if his belief that God had commanded his actions was grounds for declaring him insane, then everyone who claims to believe in God, who prays to God, and who follows God’s teachings, whether from the Bible or the Book of Mormon or even the Koran, is also insane!
The psychiatrist went on to give the following commentary:
“A false belief isn’t necessarily a basis of mental illness.” He went on to say that most of mankind subscribes to “ideas that are not particularly rational…for example, many of us believe in something referred to as trans-substantiation. That is when the priest performs the Mass, that the bread and wine become the actual blood and body of Christ. From a scientific viewpoint, that is a very strange, irrational, absurd idea. But we accept that on the basis of faith, those of us who believe that. And because it has become so familiar and common to us, that we don’t even notice…that it has an irrational quality to it. Or the idea of the virgin birth, which from a medical standpoint is highly irrational, but it is an article of faith from a religious standpoint.”
Another psychiatrist, who is a Mormon, said that if one were to compare Ron’s revelations and belief in spirits to material from the LDS doctrine, “You’d find that his statements were not as extreme as some people might think.”
A writer for the Salt Lake City Tribune wrote, “Saying that anyone who talks to God is crazy has enormous implications for the whole world of religion. It imposes a secular view of sanity and means that all religions are insane.”
I thought about this for awhile. Is faith-based belief really a form of insanity? It certainly is “irrational.” Belief in God and the ancient texts that supposedly originated with him have no basis in fact or observed phenomena. When you view the actions of the Muslim fanatics, the suicide bombers, it seems like insane behavior to me. Likewise, when you consider the brutal slaying of a woman and her child in response to a “revelation” from God, that seems like equally insane behavior. On the other hand, devout Christians…or Muslims…would view my denial of the existence of God as insane. Sanity, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.Both of the brothers still maintain their innocence to this day, while admitting that they killed the two people. The author interviewed both of them in prison, and they talked about the killing in great detail. They considered the court proceedings totally invalid. Their view is that God’s law trumps Man’s law. The book is a chilling account of how seemingly normal people who happen to be extremely devout can commit atrocious crimes without the slightest remorse.
Nevertheless, the conclusion of the court was that Ron is sane. He was re-tried and convicted and sentenced once more to the death chamber. He is a really nice guy. In his final statement before the court he said the following:
“Go ahead and do what you gotta do, you little political punk, because that’s all you are is a fucking punk, Stevie Wonder. (The Judge’s name is Steven Hansen) Ron continued in this vein for several minutes, calling the judge, among other things, a “fucking idiot who comes to work in a dress.”
Some thought that he did this to try to get the court to declare him insane so he could avoid the death penalty. His brother Dan, though, is serenely confident that he will eventually be released when Jesus returns, which is going to happen any day now. He thinks he is Elijah, God’s messenger who will announce Jesus’ return. They both
think that the events of 9/11 are a sign that the end is near. They may be right, but I doubt if God will save anybody. We’ll all die of radiation poisoning…Mormons, Christians, Muslims and everybody else.
Another section of the book deals with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Mormons murdered a whole wagon train full of settlers from Alabama and stole all their horses, cattle and other belongings. When they stood over the mass grave, they thanked God for helping them to eliminate the “people of the devil.” They believed that either you were a “good” person who believed as they do or you were a member of Satan’s clan. You’re either with us or you’re against us…where have I heard THAT recently? By the way, the Mormon church, to this day, denies that any Mormons were involved in the massacre, but eyewitness accounts and other historical records contradict them.
I was stunned by this book. I’ve never had much use for Mormons. I have always felt that their religious practices isolated them from the rest of society. They try to minimize interaction between themselves and “others.” It’s not quite as virulent today as it was in the 19th century, except for the Mormon Fundamentalists who still think the same way, but it’s still there in their culture. They don’t push themselves politically…yet…but where they are in the majority, woe be unto a non-Mormon! But, I digress…this book showed me the REAL Mormon religion, and how violent it was in the beginning. Even though the mainstream church is now pretty much integrated into our society, I think that old fundamentalism isn’t far beneath the surface. Like the Christian fundamentalists, they know what is right for the human race, and their stated goal is to impose their religion on every inhabitant of the earth. We had better be very careful to make sure that these lunatics never get any real power.
There is a lot more I could say about the Mormon religion. In some ways, it reminds me of Islam, with its emphasis on central authority and absolute obedience to that authority. Mormon kids are taught from birth that whatever the Prophet (current head of the church) says is absolute law, and failure to obey will send them straight to Hell. By the way, the Prophet is the only person in the Church who can get revelations from God. How is he chosen? When the current Prophet dies, the oldest member of the Council of Twelve Apostles is automatically elevated to Prophet. I guess they figure God chooses the one by letting him live longer than the others.
A final thought: Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the world, partly because it is still relatively small…12 million currently. Another reason for the growth is that the Mormons have a very aggressive missionary program, with about 60,000 missionaries in the field. That is quite a sales force. No wonder it’s growing!
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.