With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

"Under the Banner" Improves, but Doesn't Sanitize, Book's Reductive History of Mormonism

This is a spoilers-free overview of the new series Under the Banner of Heaven, which airs on FX on Hulu this Thursday. A recap that explores specific historical aspects of the series will appear after the series has completed.

I was a twenty-year-old missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington DC in 2003. My companion and I, temporarily serving in a rural community about an hour southeast of the nation’s capital, had been teaching an elderly gentleman for several weeks. He was a widower, retired, and seemed mildly interested in our message. But something had changed when we returned on a clear-skied Thursday afternoon, as he appeared much more aloof and uninterested. When asked why, he pointed to a new book, just released, sitting on his coffee table. 

It was Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

No book on Mormonism has sold more copies in the past two decades than Krakauer’s riveting tale. It appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list for weeks in 2003 and remains a top seller nineteen years later. Other than the Book of Mormon itself, Under the Banner of Heaven has likely shaped more Americans’ minds about the LDS faith than any other book.

Rumors concerning a film adaptation appeared almost immediately, but the story will finally make its dramatic appearance as a true-crime miniseries this week. It stars Andrew Garfield as police detective Jeb Pyre investigating a tragic case that leads him to question a faith he thought he knew, uncover a past he didn’t know existed, and penetrate a community that many wish didn’t survive.

The series is bound to ask questions once again concerning not only America’s most famous home-grown religion, Mormonism, but also the nature and implications of belief more generally.

A vehicle for condemning Muslim violence 

The LDS Church was coming off a publicity high at the moment Krakauer’s book arrived. Led by Gordon B. Hinckley, a nonagenarian with an infectious smile who’d directed the Church’s publicity outreach for decades before becoming its president in 1995, the faith had recently taken a much more congenial approach to American media. Hinckley was the first LDS president to hold sit-down, substantial, and televised interviews, which began with CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1996, and continued with Larry King, The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Time

Hinckley’s exuberant optimism and insistence on Mormonism’s gregariousness did much to change the faith’s reputation. The culmination of this new congenial approach was Salt Lake City’s hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, which received international acclaim. The Church finally appeared to be gaining mainstream acceptance.

Read entire article at Religion Dispatches