What Most Critics Missed About Dustin Lance Black’s ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

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At the Salt Lake City premiere Under the banner of heaven, writer, director and producer, Dustin Lance Black explained that the series seeks to tell a larger story of Mormonism, including Mormon experiences foreign to most viewers. At that time, some media reviews and comments replied to Banner arguing that it incorrectly portrays Mormonism (broadly defined) as a violent and dangerous faith. Few people considered Black’s purpose and the reality that Banner did not only seek to portray The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest religion under the “Mormon” umbrella.

Under the banner of heaven is the true-crime bestseller about Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers who made headlines after a double murder rocked a suburban Utah town. The men were raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion most are familiar with to some degree. However, in the 1970s, the men joined a small group of believers who saw themselves as the most authentic remnant of the religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830.

As the show opened, some people began to see a reflection of their own experience in the show.many for the first time. In a public Facebook post, a historical consultant for the show, Tory Williams of Equality Utah, spoke about his experience investigating Apostolic United Brethren fundamentalists after his LDS assignment. A woman on Twitter explained“It’s been a strange journey to realize that the version of Mormonism taught at home probably qualifies as fundamentalist.” She continued“Honestly, the biggest thing Banner evoked in me was the feeling that I wasn’t crazy and that my experience was finally being seen.”

Banner is one of many stories that can be told about Mormon fundamentalism, a religious tradition most often associated with the continued practice of polygamy. It is also indicative of the growing reality that the term “Mormon” is increasingly separated from a single institutional identity. Mormonism summarizes the most 400 religions dating back to Joseph Smith, as well as individual families whose beliefs and practices differ from “traditional” experiences with faith. This includes the Lafferty brothers.

As Hulu subscribers anticipate the seven-episode series release, some have wondered about these lesser Mormon religions and wondered about the prevalence of Mormon fundamentalism in the contemporary United States. The history of Mormon fundamentalism provides an important context for Banner and illuminates the reality that, though few in number, Mormon fundamentalism is relatively common.

But what is a Mormon fundamentalist?

It was nearly 50 years after the death of the religion’s founder that the LDS Church began the long process of ending the practice of polygamy. In 1890, under pressure from the United States government which sought to seize Church property and disincorporate the religion, the Church issued a document called the “Manifesto” which announced the official end of the practice.

This, at least, is the most often told story of Mormon polygamy. However, for those who still believe in the practice, there is another equally important story. On September 27, 1886, LDS Church President John Taylor went into hiding for his controversial marriages. According to the men who were present that evening, Taylor met both the resurrected Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith and received a revelation, called the 1886 revelation. The document proclaimed that all of God’s laws were irrevocable. For members of the fundamentalist Mormon movement, this meant one thing: against all odds, polygamy is here to stay.

In later accounts, one of the men present at the revelation claimed that John Taylor had ordained six men responsible for ensuring the survival of polygamy. The legacy of these men became known as the Council of Friends and included Lorin C. Woolley, Joseph W. Musser, John Y. Barlow, J. Leslie Broadbendt, and Charles Zitting. With these ordinations, Mormon fundamentalism was born.

Today, most Mormon fundamentalists trace their history to one of these men. Notable examples include the Apostolic United Brethren most people know for their prominent place on sister wivesand the FLDS, the religion that became infamous during the 2008 Raid at Yearning for Zion Ranch. Together, these groups once comprised the majority of Mormon fundamentalists in the nation, which at the height of the movement numbered about 40,000 adherents.

In addition to AUB and FLDS, people may be familiar with other title and documentary groups, including The Kingston Group, The LeBaron Group, and Centennial Park, to name a few. While these are prominent examples, the past twenty years have seen a rise of “independent” Mormon fundamentalism, polygamous or non-polygamous families who seek to live the “fundamentals” of the faith without formal church membership. Independent fundamentalism made headlines 2019 with the tragic murder of LaMora familiesMexico.

But Mormon fundamentalism doesn’t just include groups whose history is tied to Woolley or the 1886 Apocalypse. And it’s not only on polygamy. Today fundamentalist Mormonism encapsulates the experience of many menand they are menwho claim divine revelation as the impetus to start their own group. This includes Robert Crossfield, the leader of Lafferty after the brothers were disenfranchised by the LDS Church.

Crossfield (aka Prophet Onias) was a convert to the LDS Church who in 1961 began receiving revelations which were later published as Ssecond book of commandments and Book of Onias. His revelations and publications led to his excommunication and the formation of his own Mormon religion which attracted many Salem, UT area residents who believed the LDS Church had gone astray.

This is the complicated Mormonism represented in Under the banner of heaven. While some might watch the show and wonder to what extent the families of Banner are indicative of a shared trajectory, the show reflects a trend that began when the group of men in 1886 questioned whether the Church could be wrong about the end of polygamy.

Banner portrays the Mormonism of many young women who convert to fundamentalism and enter the sealing as third wives; fathers who teach their children the Adam-God doctrine; and mothers who encourage their neighbors to join consecration efforts– all of whom were part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but no longer do so. The sentiment also reflects the reality that after priesthood and temple restrictions that barred black Latter-day Saints from the temple ended in 1978, LDS families joined the Apostolic United Brethren because they feared that their Church would fall into apostasy.

The series reflects the growing reality that “Mormonism” is not monolithic and that the Mormon experience is vast; sometimes existing outside an easily defined institution. It also reflects the reality that sometimes Mormonism can provide doctrinal support to men who commit horrific crimes, such as Bryan David MitchellArvine ShreeveWarren Jeffs, Ervil LeBaron and the Lafferty Brothers– but certainly not always, especially since everyone has either left the LDS Church or been excommunicated for their beliefs.

While many people will rightly not see their religious experience on screen, Banner gives voice to an under-discussed experience. Banner portrays a more complicated definition of “Mormonism” and allows people whose experiences are not considered normative a moment to see themselves in the story, even for the first time.

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