A story of two parts – polygamy and violence. That is, in a nutshell, the story of Mormon Fundamentalism (MF). After considering polygamy in the last article, we now attempt to understand MF violence in its contemporary expression.
I continue outlining the story of Dan Lafferty and his brothers in order to identify some of the factors which led to their use of violence in support of their religious beliefs. And the story, with its underlying principles, remains extremely relevant for Christians in many countries.
One of Lafferty’s first steps on the road towards violence seemed insignificant. He decided to get involved in politics – in itself a legitimate decision. In fact, individual Christians need to function as ‘light’ and ‘salt’ within society (Matthew 5:13-16), including the political arena at local, regional and national levels.
Lafferty’s decision was influenced by two related incidents. There was first the decision of the area health authority to stop him running his small sandwich business from home.
It was a lucrative trade but, reportedly, he had no licence and had not paid the necessary taxes. In addition, he may not have been complying with health and safety regulations.
Whatever the reasons for the ruling, it made him angry, for he needed income to support his growing family and pay his way through college.
Politics and religion
The other incident which influenced his decision was his reading of the Book of Mormon. He was challenged by its statement that each person has a duty to ensure that there is a competent, just government in power in the country.
‘When I read that,’ he wrote, ‘it really got me going’. Yes, he would involve himself in politics because ‘you can’t really separate political issues from religious issues’.
Well, the Lord distinguished between political and religious issues. He did so, for example, in Mark 12:16-17: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ That was the question put to him by critics. For emphasis, they added: ‘Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?’
Aware of their hypocrisy and intentions to trap him, the Lord asked them to bring him a coin. Pointing to the coin he asked, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They gave the obvious answer: ‘Caesar’s’.
Then Jesus replied, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.
These words are profound and have major implications for daily life. For example, honouring God involves honouring earthly rulers by paying taxes. This is necessary in order to pay for police protection, magistrates, government, national security, transport and other benefits – like education and health care.
Another implication is that civil rulers cannot be given unlimited honour and obedience. But it is only when rulers demand obedience in ways that violate God’s Word that the principle of Acts 5:29 should operate: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’.
Normally, we honour God when we honour the civil rulers, pay our taxes and observe the laws of the realm.
And Lafferty would have been helped more by reading Christ’s words and other Bible teaching, rather than the Book of Mormon.
After qualifying as a chiropractor, in the early 1980s, Dan led his five brothers in regular informal discussions on religion and politics.
As a faithful Mormon, he often quoted the Book of Mormon to support his argument that the government had no authority to compel its citizens to obtain car licences, pay taxes and register themselves for employment and benefits.
To him, such demands were a violation of personal and civil liberty: ‘I decided I did not want them to have control of my life’, he wrote.
The second significant step, therefore, in the Lafferty brothers moving towards lawlessness and violence was their rejection or ignorance of the Bible.
Had they read the Bible? We do not know. Were they familiar with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-7? If they had been, their lives and responses could have been radically different. Even their families might have escaped the misery and violence inflicted on them.
God and government
Dan soon challenged the civil authorities in a number of irresponsible ways and was sentenced to thirty days imprisonment as well as a period of psychiatric evaluation. His resolve to break free of civil law was evident.
If only he had heeded the Bible message: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1). One reason is that they are appointed by God to rule society: ‘For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God’.
Another reason is that rulers are God’s ministers, protecting society, punishing evildoers and encouraging loyal citizens. ‘Render therefore to all their due…’ (Romans 13:3-4, 7).
Dan did the very opposite and influenced his brothers to accept polygamy and a militant expression of Mormon fundamentalism. Changes in family life were dramatic. Their wives suffered extensively, and Dianna, the wife of Dan’s brother Ron, initiated divorce proceedings in 1983 on the ground of cruelty.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. Now a third significant step on the road to violence can be identified. Sadly, it is the familiar claim to have received direct revelations from God. Not surprisingly, the claim led to tragic consequences.
Late in 1983 a Mormon ‘prophet’ named Onias was introduced to the Lafferty brothers. They got on well together. What appealed to the brothers was Onias’s claim to have received a revelation from God a few days earlier, critical of Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City.
The supposed revelation referred to God’s anger towards the leaders. And the reason? In an earlier period, they had compromised on polygamy and then in 1978 admitted black men into the Mormon priesthood.
For Onias, these two decisions represented compromise of major proportions.
A School of Prophets was established by Onias and within weeks in 1984 it was meeting weekly, with the Lafferty brothers heavily involved.
On the basis of further revelations, Onias gave Ron more authority within the school. This misguided decision had tragic consequences.
Already, Ron was seething with anger over his recent excommunication from the main Mormon group and because of his divorce. He was also angry towards those, like his sister-in-law, who had assisted his wife in obtaining the divorce.
Almost immediately after his promotion within the school, Ron himself claimed to receive revelations directly. Some of his revelations were frightening and shocking.
Yes, you guessed correctly. Ron soon claimed that God had told him to kill his sister-in-law, her baby and two other persons. These chilling messages were shared with the other brothers. Although appalled, some agreed that God was directing them to kill.
Four months later, the brothers Ron and Dan murdered their sister-in-law and her baby in the cruellest of ways. Eventually, both Dan and Ron Lafferty were arrested, charged, tried and found guilty.
While Dan was given a long prison sentence, his brother Ron was sentenced to death. He has made several appeals but it now seems inevitable that he will be executed early in 2004.
In prison, Dan imagined he has been transformed: ‘my beliefs went through this major evolution… I changed Gods’, he wrote.
Has he become a Christian? The answer appears to be negative. Dan is confused and even deluded, imagining that he is Elijah, sent ‘here to prepare the way for the return of the Son of Man’. Nevertheless, Dan is searching for the truth and also reading the Bible.
What about Ron Lafferty? He has no remorse, or so it seems. Hatred, foul language and delusions characterize his behaviour even on ‘death row’. According to brother Dan, Ron has been under the influence of the devil and demons for years.
Both men illustrate the extreme dangers of so-called ‘revelations’ that ignore or contradict Bible teaching. Both also need our prayers.
They desperately stand in need of God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, and of the miracle of regeneration. Only the Holy Spirit can remove their spiritual blindness and impart spiritual life to them.