In the coming weeks, much ink will be spilled (digitally) and many hands will be wrung (metaphorically) over the FX/Hulu series Under the Banner of Heaven. I have not seen any more than the publicly available previews and will withhold judgment until I actually watch it. I expect to be alternately entertained, impressed with the acting and production quality, and occasionally dismayed at various inaccuracies and misreadings of my people’s faith and culture. Most of all, I expect that simply by virtue of narrating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the lens of the horrific murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, most viewers will walk away confirmed in their assumption that this faith community—no matter how nice their real-life Latter-day Saint neighbors or coworkers are—is something akin to a weird, dangerous cult.
This will not be the first time that the Church has been connected to violence in popular culture. In fact, it was the beloved Sherlock Holmes who helped introduce readers around the world to the alleged horrors of “Mormon violence.” A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first murder mystery featuring the famous detective, transported readers across the ocean from Victorian England to the “Country of the Saints” in the mountain deserts of Utah. The citizens of the territory live in perpetual fear under the theocratic grip of a cold, stern Brigham Young. In Doyle’s rendering, Young is all too eager to dispatch his secret police—the dreaded Danites—in maintaining his reign of terror. “The man who held out against the Church vanished away,” wrote Doyle, and “a rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation.” Residents live “in fear and trembling,” daring not speak a word out of line for fear that their neighbor, or even a member of their own family, might be one of Young’s enforcers and “bring down a swift retribution upon them.”
In using Latter-day Saint violence as a plot device, Doyle was in good company. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novelists on both sides of the Atlantic frequently outdid one another with their depictions of the “Destroying Angels” of Mormonism. In works by popular authors such as Zane Grey and Robert Louis Stevenson, Latter-day Saints appeared as stock villains preying on innocent women and eliminating anyone who got in their way. Novels with titles like The Fighting Danites or subtitles like Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar were sure to find a ready-made audience.1
New technologies afforded new opportunities to display violent, lecherous Mormons. Films with titles like A Victim of the Mormons, Marriage or Death, The Danites, and Trapped by the Mormons screened widely across the United States and Europe. Big-screen depictions of dangerous Latter-day Saints still pop up occasionally, such as the cinematic flop September Dawn (2007). Such portrayals have shaped a sinister image in the public mind, attributing the Church’s survival and success in part to coercive tactics of repression against both internal and external enemies.
Arguably, none of those previous novels or films have had the impact of Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven. I don’t have access to the book’s sales numbers, but they must be phenomenal; according to my semi-regular perusals of Amazon’s rankings of “Mormonism” books, Banner has not left the top five since it was published two decades ago. Several of my colleagues have told me that when they accepted a job in Utah, one or more well-meaning friends gave them a copy of Banner. Personally, I hold the heretical view that the book is not as bad as many people make it out to be—but it definitely should not be distributed as a reliable guide to life in the Beehive State or a Latter-day Saint 101 textbook. Whatever group you identify with, I guarantee you can find your equivalent of the Lafferty brothers.
Whatever group you identify with, I guarantee you can find your equivalent of the Lafferty brothers.
To characterize this particular faith tradition as inherently and uniquely violent is simply a misrepresentation. For some two centuries, most Latter-day Saints have lived in peace with one another and with their neighbors. The Church provided the spiritual and structural framework for an orderly frontier society in Utah. And many historical claims of Latter-day Saint violence were fabrications or almost-comical exaggerations. For example, in 1875 a newspaper reported that a man named Samuel Sirrine had been killed by Danites, but in fact, he had simply moved to California.
More broadly, Scott Thomas’s careful review of the historical record shows that Utah was not more violent than other western territories. The remarkable fact that historians can name virtually every instance of violence by Latter-day Saints against their opponents in the religion’s early decades suggests the relative infrequency of such episodes. By contrast, scholars who study the genocide of Native Americans or the lynching of African Americans admit that their estimates of how much violence actually occurred will always be imprecise given the overwhelming number of deaths and relative lack of documentation.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely true that Latter-day Saints have a history of violence. (I wrote a book about it.) The most lethal decade in Latter-day Saint history was the 1850s when church members used violent force against an assortment of perceived enemies, including dissenters from the faith, non-members whom they considered dangerous or hostile, and Native Americans who lived on land or competed for resources that the Latter-day Saint pioneers sought in settling the Great Basin. As a people, we need to acknowledge and wrestle with this violent past more than we have (although this essay and this book are a good start).
It would be convenient in a way to say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely violent. Unfortunately, it is not. Every religion, every political system, every ideology, and every nation-state have blood on their hands. Whatever group you identify with, I guarantee you can find your equivalent of the Lafferty brothers. My Latter-day Saint theology informs my belief that humanity’s original sin wasn’t eating a piece of fruit, it was one brother killing another. We have all been living in Cain’s shadow ever since.
So yes, there have been times when Latter-day Saints have committed violence in the name of their religion. Far more often, however, they have done so primarily as some other category of humans—as frontiersmen, as white settler-colonists, as American (or German or Australian) soldiers, as abusive fathers or husbands, as the mentally ill, and yes, as the very rare religiously inspired psychopath. In this respect, Latter-day Saints and their faith are not special. The problem comes when we are treated as such.
Notes1. See Jennie Switzer [Bartlett], Elder Northfield’s Home: Or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar (New York: J. Howard Brown, 1882); Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (New York: Harper, 1912); Robert Louis Stevenson, The Dynamiter (New York: Scribner, 1925); Dane Coolidge, The Fighting Danites (New York: Dutton, 1934). For more information and titles, see Terryl L. Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, updated ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Rebecca Foster Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, “Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90,” BYU Studies Quarterly 23:2 (1983): 147-65.↩