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I’m a few years late to the game but I finally watched Under the Banner of Heaven, a 2022 drama series based on Jon Krakauer’s true crime book of the same name. The timing worked out perfectly, so I was able to listen to the audiobook at the same time as I watched the series.

The book and TV series follow the true story of the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter in Utah in the mid-1980s. It is also the story of religious fundamentalism gone wrong.

Spoiler alert: Lafferty and her daughter were murdered by two of her brothers-in-law, who had become involved in Mormon fundamentalism and received what they believed was a divine revelation that Lafferty and her daughter needed to be killed.

Both the book and the series reconstruct the events leading up to Lafferty’s murder while also interweaving the story of Mormonism itself. Where did Mormon fundamentalism come from? How is it related to the founding years of the religion? How has Mormon fundamentalism persisted to this day?

They also tell a story of the role of violence in the origins of Mormonism and in the American West more broadly, a sometimes-brutal story that the book and series try to connect directly to the Lafferty murders. They make an argument that this violent religious impulse was there right from the start and that we shouldn’t be so shocked that it led these brothers to commit two grisly murders.

What I loved about the TV series was the addition of Andrew Garfield’s character, Detective Jeb Pyre, a fictional police detective assigned to the Lafferty case. He is portrayed as a faithful believer confronted by the dark side of his faith.

Initially the police don’t initially want to acknowledge the fact that Mormon fundamentalism was involved in the murders. You can see how he and the other LDS officers try to deny it — they want to explain the murders away as a simple domestic dispute gone wrong or as Satanists or some other nefarious group who committed these ritualistic crimes. It couldn’t be people who shared their faith.

But as it becomes clearer that the Lafferty brothers were involved in Mormon fundamentalism and that their religious beliefs drove them to commit the murders, we watch Detective Pyre come to the realization that fellow Mormons perpetrated these crimes. Not only that, but he also must confront the fact that a number of Mormon leaders failed to protect Brenda Lafferty as she challenged the increasingly extreme beliefs of her husband and brothers-in-law.

The series, then, is not just a true crime thriller, it is also the story of Detective Pyre wrestling with the dark side of his religion and finally coming to accept that people who shared his faith used it to commit horrible crimes. Detective Pyre is clearly troubled by what he’s encountering, struggling to reconcile his personal beliefs and experience with Mormonism with what he’s discovering as he investigates the Lafferty murders. Along the way, he isolates himself from his family, argues and disagrees with colleagues and his boss, and makes himself almost physically ill with stress and anxiety.

Since finishing the show, I’ve been reflecting on how many people, including myself, have had similar watershed moments as American Christians, especially in recent years.

Maybe we’re not confronting murders, but we’ve witnessed plenty of other horrible behaviors perpetrated by people who claim to share our beliefs, from white evangelical support for Trump to the response to COVID and more.

Like Detective Pyre, we may have had to watch our own religious leaders excuse, explain away, or try to cover up those behaviors. And like Detective Pyre, it’s been a jarring, disconcerting, and painful process to confront the dark side of faith.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • Henry Baron says:

    Have we ever had a service of lament for the ways in history and today the Christian Church has, in the name of God, dishonored him by doing violence to fellow believers?

  • RZ says:

    Probably not. We reformation folks are not so good about confession. Grace theology is beautiful. But it leads us to be quite content with generic, non-specific confession. We skip quickly to assurance- of- pardon and election- to- salvation.
    This story is a good warning for today’s evangelical climate. Much dishonesty and abuse of power are largely ignored, even encouraged. Jesus never condoned deception or short-cutting, not to mention violence.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      In 2009, the Collegiate Reformed Churches in New York apologized to the Lenape tribe who inhabited Manhattan when the Dutch arrived. Recently, the Swiss Reformed in Zurich have apologized to the Anabaptists for persecuting them. And aren’t “land acknowledgements” apologies of a sort? Granted, all these seem to take 400 years or more before they are offered.

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