A new limited series that begins airing this week on FX on Hulu is garnering attention for its grisly subject matter and portrayal of both mainstream and fundamentalist Latter-day Saint religions.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is adapted from the controversial 2003 nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer and explores the real-life 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica. We took a closer look at the series to help Latter-day Saints engage in dialogues about how their faith is being portrayed in entertainment today.
The Premise of “Under the Banner of Heaven”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” follows fictional (and faithful Latter-day Saint) police detective Jeb Pyre, played by Andrew Garfield. His faith is shaken as he investigates the gruesome murder of a Latter-day Saint mother and her baby. The series also parallels the modern-day investigation with flashbacks depicting the early growth and instances of violence in the Church, with actors set to portray Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell, and others. The series also stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda, Gil Birmingham, Billy Howle, Sam Worthington, and Wyatt Russell.
It is soon revealed the murderers are Ron and Dan Lafferty, the two brothers-in-law of the victim. Excommunicated members who join a fundamentalist sect, the brothers claim they received revelation from God to commit the murders. Soon, the small, devout town begins to discover the powerful Latter-day Saint family Brenda belonged to isn’t as righteous as it seemed.
The series was created and written by Dustin Lance Black and consists of 7 episodes set to air this week. Black is a former member of the Church who left the faith in his teens and has worked on multiple projects portraying Latter-day Saints and fundamentalist sects, including Big Love and a documentary about the Church’s involvement in California’s Proposition 8.
How Are Latter-day Saints Depicted?
According to both Black and Garfield, there are “good” depictions of Latter-day Saints in the series.
“I think that’s a really beautiful, sensitive portrayal of this … kind of everyman, modern Mormon family,” Garfield told reporters. “And I can’t imagine anyone being upset by that aspect of the show, personally.”
However, Garfield also told the Today Show that Black didn’t shy away from shedding light on what the show believes are unsavory or distressing “truths” about the organization of the Church. Latter-day Saints will be particularly troubled by images of sacred temple ceremonies depicted onscreen. The trailer for the series is available to view below. Please note, it contains disturbing imagery and depictions members may find offensive.
The “Under the Banner of Heaven” Book
“Under the Banner of Heaven” was released in July 2003. In the opening of the book, Krakauer makes clear his intentions when he writes, “Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God—as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest”
At the time, the Church released a series of reviews and reactions to the book from selected members, including Mike Otterson, director of Media Relations at the time, and Richard E. Turley, the managing director of the Family and Church History Department.
“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,” Otterson wrote. “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.”
“Although the book may appeal to gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook, serious readers who want to understand Latter-day Saints and their history need not waste their time on it,” Turley said.
While it is unclear if the series will make the same assertions as the book, Krakauer examined early Latter-day Saint history to compare the Church’s ideologies and teachings with those of extreme fundamentalist sects and argues that religious teachings are inextricably linked with violence.
The Murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty
Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica were found brutally murdered on July 24, 1984. They were killed by her husband’s brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty. The two were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had joined a small fundamentalist sect called the School of the Prophets. However, the brothers left the group after members wouldn’t honor a written “removal revelation” the brothers had received from God—a revelation they claimed instructed them to kill Brenda and Erica. Ron’s wife, nauseated by the idea of living polygamy as the School of the Prophets believed, had left him with Brenda’s help and encouragement. The brothers blamed her for the end of the marriage.
Dan Lafferty was sentenced to two life sentences and remains in prison today. Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death but died in 2019 of natural causes before the sentence could be carried out.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” airs on FX on Hulu on April 28, 2022.