I just finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I found it quite captivating, as the narrative moves back and forth between two interesting true stories: the early history of the Mormon church, and a recent double murder committed by two brothers who thought they were fulfilling a divine revelation.
The “hot spots” for the book are polygamy and the notion of blood atonement, both of which appear to be integral to the history of the Mormon faith (and perhaps still are). I had a good bit of familiarity with the early parts of LDS history, having visited Hill Cumorah and Nauvoo on various trips, but I was not nearly as familiar with the history after Smith’s death, when Brigham Young took over. He had a whole different skill set from Joseph Smith, and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect upon the significance of leadership style.
I need to do more reading about blood atonement, throughout history. It certainly is a pervasive, cross-cultural belief which must speak to something very primal within the human heart. Does it still?
One issue that the book addresses is divine revelation. The Mormon church is built on the idea of direct, personal revelation from God to a particular person, the weight of which has the weight of scripture. The person receiving this revelation (male, of course, white preferably) is perhaps a prophet, the “one who is mighty and strong” whose appearance is prophesied in scripture. The two brothers who murdered their sister-in-law and her baby daughter felt that God had revealed this to be his will.
I have known some charismatic religious leaders in my time. They are scary. Yet we Christians stand in a tradition of prophets who would have been pretty scary folks to meet. It ought to at least give a believer pause. We need to suspend judgment to accept faith. How far a leap is it to suspend judgment entirely?
A book like this renews my appreciation for the carefully considered safeguards of the Presbyterian church. There is a reason we invest power in groups rather than individuals. Of course, we always face the problem of becoming bogged down in bureaucracy, or of moving too slowly to be responsive to the Spirit.
Every religious faith must find its way between the fiery breath of divine revelation and the mundane realities of institutional life, all the while adjusting to a culture that makes all of this seem rather irrelevant.
Where’s the money, right?
Friends, notice the numbers. At present there are 2 million Presbyterians in the United States. By comparison, do you know how many Mormons there are? More than 6 million (just in the USA). We’re not talking about splinter sect or cult anymore. Read up!