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Latter-day Saint History

13 Things You Need to Know about FX’s ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ is a true crime thriller based on a Jon Krakauer book with a controversial history.

Under the Banner of Heaven is an FX miniseries based on a book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. While the book has a controversial history stemming from factual errors, it tells a riveting story. The miniseries stars Andrew Garfield as Detective Jeb Pyre, a fictional Latter-day Saint detective who struggles with his beliefs after coming across the shocking murders committed by Dan Lafferty and Ron Lafferty.

1. The FX miniseries is based on a book by Jon Krakauer

The miniseries starring Andrew Garfield is based on a book by Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer’s book weaves together the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1800s with two murders committed by Mormon fundamentalists in the 1980s.


2. The executive producer used to be a Latter-day Saint

Dustin Lance Black serves as the executive producer and writer of Under the Banner of Heaven. He was also raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but later left the faith.


3. You probably know some of the people behind FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven

The FX miniseries includes a number of people with impressive entertainment pedigrees. In addition to Dustin Lance Black (who won an Academy Award for his Milk screenplay), the Hulu exclusive includes several notable names:

Under the Banner of Heaven producers

  • Ron Howard (Executive Producer)
  • Jason Bateman (Executive Producer)
  • David Mackenzie (Executive Producer)
  • Gillian Berrie (Executive Producer)
  • Michael Costigan (Executive Producer)
  • Anna Culp (Executive Producer)
  • Samie Kim Falvey (Executive Producer)
  • Brian Grazer (Executive Producer)
  • Andrew Garfield (Producer)

Under the Banner of Heaven cast

  • Andrew Garfield (Detective Jeb Pyre)
  • Daisy Edgar-Jones (Brenda Wright Lafferty)
  • Sam Worthington (Ron Lafferty)
  • Denise Gough (Dianna Lafferty)
  • Wyatt Russell (Dan Lafferty)
  • Billy Howle (Allen Lafferty)
  • Gil Birmingham (Bill Taba)
  • Adelaide Clemens (Rebecca Pyre)
  • Rory Culkin (Samuel Lafferty)
  • Seth Numrich (Robin Lafferty)
  • Chloe Pirrie (Matilda Lafferty)
  • Sandra Seacat (Josie Pyre)
  • Christopher Heyerdahl (Ammon Lafferty)

4. People love (and hate) the book

Jon Krakauer’s original work provoked strong reactions, and the New York Times suggested its influence might go far beyond the original intent. Krakauer also had a way with words. He entertained readers with reports about a deadly attempt to climb Mount Everest (Into Thin Air) and the mysterious Alaskan death of Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild).

However, many criticize Krakauer’s books for their inaccuracies. For example, participants involved in the stories recounted in Into the Wild and Into Thin Air challenged Krakauer’s accounts, with one going so far as to call it fiction. Under the Banner of Heaven was no exception, resulting in a three-part response from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Excerpts from the Church’s 2003 response to Under the Banner of Heaven

Robert L. Millett

This is like asking someone: “Would you like to understand Catholicism today? Then study carefully the atrocities of the Crusades and the horrors of the Inquisition.” Or: “Would you like to gain a better insight into the minds and feelings of German people today? Then read Mein Kampf and become a serious student of Adolph Hitler.”

Mike Otterson

Krakauer’s portrayal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is utterly at odds with what I — and millions like me — have come to know of the Church, its goodness, and the decency of its people. This book is an attempt to tell the story of the so-called fundamentalist or polygamous groups in Utah, and to tie their beliefs to the doctrines and the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The result is a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern Church.

Richard Turley

Referring to Joseph Smith’s well-known 1826 trial, for example, Krakauer asserts that “a disgruntled client filed a legal claim accusing Joseph of being a fraud” (39). This assertion shows Krakauer’s unfamiliarity with basic aspects of the trial in question, as well as his tendency to spin evidence negatively. In actuality, the trial resulted not from “a disgruntled client” but from persecutors who had Joseph hauled into court for being a disorderly person because of his supposed defrauding of his employer, Josiah Stowell. As a modern legal scholar who carefully studied the case has noted, however, Stowell “emphatically denied that he had been deceived or defrauded” (Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 [spring 1990], 105). As a result, Joseph was found not guilty and discharged (ibid.).


5. Ron Lafferty and Dan Lafferty committed heinous crimes

There are questions about whether Under the Banner of Heaven accurately portrays the Latter-day Saint faith—but the crimes themselves are a matter of public record. Ron Lafferty and Dan Lafferty participated in the horrific murders of Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter, Erica Lafferty.


6. The Lafferty brothers had extreme religious beliefs

Dan Lafferty and Ron Lafferty were Mormon fundamentalists who embraced beliefs and practices no longer (or never) shared by Latter-day Saints. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated Dan Lafferty in 1982 for trying to marry his 14-year-old stepdaughter as a plural wife.

The Lafferty brothers’ extremism also manifest in other beliefs, including:

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had gone astray and discontinued polygamy in error.
  • A group called “The School of the Prophets” could teach them how to receive revelation.
  • God ordered the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had gone astray and discontinued polygamy in error.
  • A group called “The School of the Prophets” could teach them how to receive revelation.
  • God ordered the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty.

7. Latter-day Saint polygamy is complicated

The Lafferty brothers practiced a perverted version of polygamy that Latter-day Saints discontinued nearly a century earlier. But that doesn’t mean the Church’s history of plural marriage is easy to understand.

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young

Joseph Smith said that God commanded him to practice polygamy. However, the practice sparked nearly as much contention within the faith as it did everywhere else (the Republican party would go on to label polygamy one of the “twin relics of barbarism”).

While polygamy documents from the Prophet’s life in Nauvoo are scarce, scholars believe that Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives, ranging in age from 14 to 58 (some, but not all marriages, involved sexual relations). Brigham Young continued the practice when the saints went west, and had more than 50 wives.

Mormon Reformation

When 19th century Latter-day Saints in Utah began to lapse in their faithfulness, Brigham Young initiated a series of efforts to redouble their commitments known as the “Mormon Reformation.” Members were rebaptized and the Church emphasized plural marriage as a sign of faithfulness. The rigid environment led to isolated abuses that included the marriage of young teenage girls to old men.

The Manifestos

The Church tried to stop the practice of polgaymy in 1890, even going so far as to publish a revelation prohibiting plural marriage (sometimes called “The Manifesto”). But it was hard for the pioneer saints to break with tradition. A “Second Manifesto” followed in 1904. While it was largely successful, some cases of polygamy still occurred.

Modern day

Today, the Church has firmly rooted out polygamy. People like the Lafferty brothers sought their own justifications in the varied ideologies of Mormon fundamentalism.


8. Dan Lafferty isn’t sorry

The surviving Lafferty brother has no remorse for killing Brenda Lafferty and her daughter. “He recalls the murder of his sister-in-law and niece as if he were a surgeon recounting a routine medical procedure,” said Jesse Hyde of the Deseret News.

It’s never haunted me. It’s never bothered me.

Dan Lafferty to the Deseret News

9. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a horrific tragedy

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preaches a gospel of peace, but its history isn’t without violence. The darkest example is the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which a small group of Latter-day Saints ruthlessly murdered more than 100 people in a large wagon train, including women and children.

Emily Utt and Richard E. Turley Jr. discuss the 1857 massacre at Mountain Meadows.

10. Dan Lafferty shared a prison cell with Mark Hofmann

The man at the center of Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons plays a tangential role in Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Mark Hofmann was a master forger who fooled organizations like the Library of Congress with a fake copy of Oath of a Freeman. However, he primarily forged documents associated with early Latter-day Saint history. To cover up his crimes, Hofmann murdered two people with homemade bombs, and may have intended to kill a third.

Mark Hofmann is currently serving his sentence at the Utah State Prison. For a time, he shared a cell with Under the Banner of Heaven’s Dan Lafferty.


11. Andrew Garfield plays a fictional Latter-day Saint detective

Andrew Garfield plays the role of a detective in the FX adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven. Detective Jeb Pyre is “a very good man, a mainstream Mormon man, who maybe just hasn’t asked some of the tough questions yet,” executive producer Dustin Lance Black told Vanity Fair.

Garfield spoke with several Utahns to familiarize himself with Latter-day Saint culture.

“I traveled to Utah for a little research trip with some friends of Dustin Lance’s and met countless ex-Mormons, current Mormons, future ex-Mormons, [and] cop Mormons,” Garfield told Variety, using the “Mormon” nickname eschewed by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I just asked lots and lots of questions and tried to immerse myself in that culture as much as possible.”


12. Andrew Garfield has done this before (sort of)

This isn’t Andrew Garfield’s first portrayal of a religious character. Prior to portraying Detective Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven, Garfield starred as the real-life Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. However, rather than investigating crimes, Garfield’s previous character was committing them (the televangelist was convicted of fraud and conspiracy for siphoning donations from his congregants).


13. Under the Banner of Heaven was going to be a movie

The FX miniseries was originally going to be a movie directed by Ron Howard. Warner Brothers initially announced plans to produce the film in 2011. A decade later, FX signed on for a limited series directed by David Mackenzie.


Further reading

Under the Banner of Heaven resources

Context

Dan Lafferty and Ron Lafferty

Episodes

Episode 1: “When God Was Love”

Episode 2: “Rightful Place”

Episode 3: “Surrender”

Episode 4: “Church and State”

Episode 5: “One Mighty and Strong”

Episode 6: Revelation

Episode 7: Blood Atonement

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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