« Humility | Main | Pan's Labyrinth »

Under the Banner of Heaven

What does a Jon Krakauer book that combines Mormon history with a true-crime murder story have to do with Quakerism?

Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and George Fox were very different people, though both were convinced that God spoke to them, leading them in a better direction. Fox argued that revelation from God was possible for everyone who sought it, while Smith was more cautious, arguing that continuing revelation from God was restricted to a much smaller group of prophets. Krakauer describes how this reflected a change from the earliest doctrine:

In the beginning, Joseph Smith had emphasized the importance of personal revelations for everyone. Denigrating the established churches of the day, which were far more inclined to filter the word of God through institutional hierarchies, he instructed Mormons to seek direct "impressions from the Lord," which should guide them in every aspect of their lives.... With everyone receiving revelations, the prophet stood to lose control of his followers.

Joseph acted fast to resolve this dilemma by announcing in 1830 - the same year the Mormon Church was incorporated - that God had given him another revelation: "No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr." But the genie was already out of the bottle. Joseph had taught and encouraged his Saints to receive personal revelations, and the concept proved to be immediately popular. (78-9)

Smith himself claimed divine origins for the Book of Mormon, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also records ongoing revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants book, which includes revelations to Smith and to his successors as Mormon leaders. The most controversial of the official revelations endorsed polygamy, something the official Church has long since rejected.

The second focus of Under the Banner of Heaven is a group of apostates from the main Mormon church, whose path, though they claim it was inspired by divine revelation, led them to murder. (I should note that Mormon critics of the book are appalled by Krakauer's linking the murders to Mormon history and also by his telling of that history.) They find their claims to divine inspiration through the work of Prophet Onias, who founds a School of the Prophets:

there was one aspect of Onias's School of the Prophets that set him apart from the leaders of other polygamist sects: he instructed his followers how to receive divine revelations. Indeed, teaching this sacred art - which had been widely practiced by Mormons in Joseph's day yet all but abandoned by the modern Church - was the school's main thrust. Onias intended to restore the gift of revelation by teaching twentieth-century Saints how to hear the "still small voice" of God, which, as Joseph explained in Section 85 of the Doctrine and Covenants, "whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake." (85)

Onias taught a group of students about prophecy, but unfortunately a revelation came out as:

Thus Saith the lord unto My servants the Prophets. It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped. First thy brother's wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low, then Richard Stowe. And it is My will that they be removed in rapid succession and that an example be made of them in order that others might seen the fate of those who fight against the true Saints of God. And it is My will that this matter be taken care of as soon as possible and I will prepare a way for My instrument to be delivered and instructions be given unto my servant Todd. And it is My will that he show great care in his duties for I have raised him up and prepared him for this important work and is he not like unto My servant Porter Rockwell[?] And great blessing await if if he will do My Will, for I am the Lord thy God and have control over all things. Be still and know that I am with thee. Even so Amen. (165-6)

When Ron Lafferty showed his revelation to his brother Dan, Dan told him "Well, I can see why you're concerned, as well you should be... all I can say is make sure it's from God. You don't want to act on commandments that are not from God, but at the same time you don't want to offend God by refusing to do his work." (166)

When they presented this revelation to the other members of the School of the Prophets, everyone except the Laffertys and their brother voted it down, as not a real revelation. The Laffertys left the School and later carried out two of the 'removals'. They appear to still believe they were right.

Under the Banner of Heaven has much more detail on that terrible story, but for now I'd like to use this 'revelation' to examine some key safeguards Quakerism has maintained to avoid such situations.

A very basic safeguard is some key phrasing in the Declaration of 1660, which states unequivocally:

That the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

If later Quakers accept this statement, and receive a leading that counters it, they have at least to spend time contemplating whether their leading is true or whether the shared leading of the early Quakers is true. Even if they haven't read the Declaration, they'll likely have a sense that their leading conflicts with centuries of tradition. (Thanks to Zach for pointing out the language of the Declaration in a very different context.)

It's certainly possible for Quakers to breach that pacifist barrier, as the Free Quakers did. Pacifism provides a firewall, but it isn't the only test, and there are, of course, many possible things people might wrongly interpret as leadings that would cause harm short of violence.

While Quakerism broadly continues the quest for the Light, for direct contact between worshipper and worshipped, a community can better resolve true leadings from false than an individual. Meeting discipline is one aspect of this, and clearness committees are another. Quakers also shifted from early openness to all revelation to a more cautious model, but left the practice open to all, subject to consideration with other Quakers.

George Fox and other early Quakers were wise, I think, in that they left they left the core of their teaching intact: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," "that of God in them all" to speak to them and help them find the path. Revelation, leadings, and prophecy are available to everyone - but in a context that makes it very hard for leadings like Ron Lafferty's to come through. Quaker process may be notorious for its slowness, but the approach of a Quaker meeting requires participants to think about themselves, their role, and the object of the discussion in a different way than people voting. That holds true perhaps especially when they don't get what they want.

Is it possible that a 'renegade Quaker' will think they have received violent leadings, share them with others but reject their concerns, and act on the leadings? Certainly. It may have already happened. (Let me know in comments, please, though I hope not.) I suspect the odds of it happening are dramatically lowered, however, by the structures Quakers have built for testing revelations, for sharing them and figuring out where they come from and what they mean.

(It's also interesting to note that one church descended from early Mormonism, the Community of Christ, emphasizes peace and is non-liturgical. It also has continued prophecy and a Doctrine and Covenants updated by Presidents of the church in consultation with a review process by the World Conference of the church.)


One point I would like to clarify: the passage does say that "no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith" (Doctrine and Covenants 28:2) but when read in context, we understand it to mean that no one can receive revelation FOR the church except for the prophet, who at that time was Joseph Smith. Doctrine and Covenants 28:6 clarifies further: "thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church" and D&C 28:13 gives the reason for this revelation: "for all things must be done in order." So this revelation meant that only the prophet, the head of the church, is entitled to receive revelation for the whole church, but everyone can receive revelation for themselves.