Mormons and Murder: FX’s ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

The nods to Mormonism are unmistakable in the trailer for Under the Banner of Heaven. As Andrew Garfield’s police detective narrates, we’re shown a mother in a church pew holding a baby. Next to her and her husband are four more young children, all dressed in their Sunday best. Yes, Mormons often have a lot of kids. Utah leads the nation in birth rate for a reason.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” will explore much more than the birth rate. And the microscope likely will not be all that welcome in Utah. Members of The Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints will chafe at their faith being tied to the FX limited series, as would any religion being tied to a real-life double homicide. 

The show is based on the real-life murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her baby in 1984. Lafferty was a 24-year-old BYU student who lived with her husband in American Fork, a suburb about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City. Her death was chronicled by author Jon Krakauer in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer also wrote Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, both of which were later turned into movies.

Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” caused a stir among Mormons. That’s common when the religion is presented in popular culture. Whether it’s a South Park episode that presents LDS tenets as punchlines or the runaway hit Broadway show The Book of Mormon, members of the church are used to their faith being under inspection. But one TV show in particular was an especially unwelcome thorn in the side of the faithful.

Faith and “Big Love”

Many Mormons were probably glad the show Big Love ended its run in 2011. After all, the HBO series focused on a polygamous family in the Salt Lake City suburbs. While the show was clear that lead actor Bill Paxton and his three wives were part of a fundamentalist splinter group shunned by the LDS church, there were still many ties to the Mormon church. 

The church itself made the connection clear, issuing multiple statements against Big Love.

The first statement, in March of 2006, said, “The central characters of ‘Big Love’ are not ‘Mormons,’ or, more properly termed, Latter-day Saints. HBO has said the script makes it clear that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t practice polygamy. Still, placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program’s subject matter and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes.”

The basis for the outrage was simple. Big Love was a show centered around the hottest hot-button issue in the Mormon church: polygamy. That issue is also a plot-driver in both the book and the tv series Under the Banner of Heaven.

Polygamy was a part of Mormon life in the 19th century. Practicing LDS men took multiple wives from 1852 until 1890, when the church banned the practice.

That move caused a break in the church. The present-day LDS church excommunicates members who practice polygamy, but several small groups split off from the Mormons. One of the largest, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has between 5,000 and 10,000 members. The fundamentalists still practice polygamy. 

The Beehive

Mormons are used to having their religion attacked in popular culture. It’s in the church’s DNA, which dates back to the 19th century in western New York. Joseph Smith told his followers an angel appeared to him and told him where to find a set of golden plates, which contained ancient writings. 

Not allowing anyone else to see the plates and use his seer stone, Smith dictated the translation of the plates. The translation became the Book of Mormon. The Mormons believed everything in the Bible, but also believed everything in the Book of Mormon, as well as prophecies bestowed on church leaders like Smith.

The Mormons settled in Missouri, then Illinois. There were violent clashes with the locals; Smith was killed by a mob in a jail on June 27, 1844.

Led by Brigham Young, the Mormons moved west, and the LDS church has been centered in Salt Lake City for more than 150 years. And while the church has loudly denounced depictions in pop culture, it’s often really the church’s splinter groups that are in the media — and behind the story of Under the Banner of Heaven.

FLDS Connection

Polygamy is connected to the story of Under the Banner of Heaven. After his wife left him and excommunicated from the LDS church, Ron Lafferty joined a polygamous sect with his brothers called the School of Prophets in 1984. Ron believed his brother’s wife, Brenda Wright Lafferty, caused the failure of his marriage. 

Shortly after he joined the School of Prophets, Ron Lafferty had a revelation sent from god. This was relatively normal. The LDS church itself believes strongly in revelations. Only Lafferty’s message was dark: a so-called “removal revelation” that called for Brenda Wright Lafferty’s death. It was that revelation that eventually led Ron Lafferty, and a group of followers, to Brenda Lafferty’s door on July 24, 1984.

Krakauer wrote exhaustively about the murders. In 2003, the LDS church issued an exhaustive news release in response to Under the Banner of Heaven. Suffice it to say, they were not entertained.

“He finds sufficient zealots and extremists in the past 150 years to help him tell his story, and by extrapolation tars every Mormon with the same brush,” Mike Otterson, director of media relations, said in the release.

FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven may draw similar fire. Sure, it’s been 20 years since the release Krakauer’s book and nearly 40 years since the murders, but the church’s past with polygamy and its present with fundamentalist offshoots bring some of the same messages through today.

How to Watch ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

The FX limited series features SAM WORTHINGTON, DENISE GOUGH, and Wyatt Russell premiered on April 28 with new episodes releasing weekly on Hulu. 

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ isn’t the only riveting new TV show that came out in April. See what else you should be watching

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