The Culture Wars of Zarahemla

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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series The Book of Mormon as a Political Thriller

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the cultural, political, and religious tensions in Zarahemla. The internal politics of Zarahemla were tumultuous at times, with various factions rising against those in institutional power. In this project, I hope to give shape and color to some of these factions. In this post, I’ll detail my notes on those factions that arise leading up to Mosiah2’s change in the affairs of the kingdom. Some of this is my own considered opinion of the text, and other bits are the product of literary extrapolation and artistic license.

Uniting Two Very Different Peoples

Despite the narrative that the people of Zarahemla and the people of Mosiah share a common ancestry, there is almost little else the people had in common. The people of Mosiah come a community of Nephites who prided themselves in their cultural, religious, and racial purity. Yes, racial purity was likely a matter of concern for the Nephites, who probably discouraged intermarriage with indigenous peoples in order to preserve themselves a distinct branch of the family of Abraham. They were a record-keeping people, and it was important to them that they keep their culture and their religion pure and undefiled from competing cultural forces in the region.

In contrast, the people of Zarahemla claimed to be of the house of Israel, but had no records to demonstrate it (merely an oral tradition), spoke a foreign language, and shared none of the customs and traditions of the Nephites. If they were once of the house of Israel, they had intermingled and intermarried so thoroughly that they were hardly distinct racially and culturally from the indigenous people. They did not know or practice the law of Moses, did not worship the same God. And having been sold on a story of common history (whether true or not), Mosiah (and his son Benjamin) started the project of “restoring” this people to their true heritage.

This “restoration” likely included implementing Israelite legal tradition, during Mosiah’s (and then Benjamin’s) reign as kings. As kings, they would judge cases, and they began judging them not against the jurisprudence of Zarahemla, but by Nephite and Israelite jurisprudence. Over time, Mosiah and Benjamin begin to assert this foreign jurisprudence as the primary law of the land, and to treat the traditional jurisprudence of Zarahemla as a corrupt or apostate tradition, to eventually be stamped out entirely.

This process also included implementing the law of Moses, building a temple, and introducing Israelite religious worship to the people. Many of the people of Zarahemla would not (until much later) realize the extent to which embracing Mosiah and his people would imperil their own tradition, culture, and heritage. In fact, since the “Mulekites” never appear again in the Book of Mormon as a distinct people, it’s likely that the people of Zarahemla were adopted into the house of Lehi (possibly into the tribe of Zoram, as Zoramites, in honor of Lehi adopting Zoram into his family).

In today’s celebration of multiculturalism, we take great efforts to preserve cultures and traditions that differ from ours. We often decry the “colonialism” the erases native histories and cultures, and which treats those cultures as “less than” our own. But in the ancient context of the Book of Mormon, Mosiah and Benjamin may have had no reservations whatsoever trampling roughshod over long-established traditions of the Mulekites in Zarahemla, declaring them apostate and in need of correction through their divinely inspired leadership. Mosiah (and Benjamin) making the people of Zarahemla into a covenant people.

However, it may be that this new arrangement had some challenges — perhaps the people of Zarahemla did not wholly embrace their new identity in the house of Lehi, or did not fully realize their place in the lineage and family of Abraham. And perhaps there were holdouts among the people of Mosiah, who adhered to their older traditions of racial purity, resisting intermarriage with the people of Zarahemla. They were growing together as two peoples, not one. I imagine King Benjamin praying and fasting on how to unite the people under a single banner — and their shared narratives of being of the lineage of Abraham was no longer sufficient to do that.

King Benjamin had a visit from an angel, who instructed him to introduce an innovation: individual covenants whereby the people take upon themselves the name of Christ. Through this innovation, the people of Mosiah and the people of Zarahemla could shed their prior identities and take on a new, shared identity: the people of Christ. They would be united as a covenant people not by virtue of their Abrahamic lineage, but by virtue of a new covenant they entered into together, and their shared commitment to the name of Christ. This would also de-prioritize questions of lineage and heritage when absorbing new people and peoples into the community.

This is the occasion of his grand sermon at the beginning of Mosiah. It should be noted that King Benjamin was not founding a church, as we see it today (an institution separate and distinct from the civic community). Taking upon themselves this new covenant was almost certainly a way of signalling their membership in the new tribal community led by King Benjamin. While the covenants were entered into individually, they were nonetheless a community affair. Although King Benjamin did not compel anyone, not making this covenant would likely have meant separating oneself from King Benjamin’s reign and leaving the community.

The Introduction of Alma’s Church

Alma1 also introduced a novel covenant community while in the Land of Nephi. When King Noah and his priests corrupted the legal system and sullied the temple, Alma1 formed a religious community separate and distinct from the civic community. He formed what we today would call a church, and introduced individual covenants as a way of stepping into church membership. A church is a community of like-minded practitioners who see themselves as members of a distinct community from non-practitioners — but what makes them a church (unlike King Benjamin’s people) is that both practitioners and non-practitioners are part of the same civic community, subject to the same legal authorities and the same laws.

In other words, King Benjamin invited the people to take upon themselves the name of Christ through individual covenant, and thereby become a new civic community united by a shared commitment to Christ. In contrast, Alma1 invited people to become members of a church community that was separate from the civic community, and to serve Christ through individual covenants. When Alma1 arrives in Zarahemla, Mosiah2 sees strong similarities between Alma1’s reports of Abinadi’s prophecies and teaching, and the teachings and prophecies of King Benjamin. He rejoices that both groups have been ministered to by people with divine foreknowledge of Christ. Realizing Alma1’s divine commission, Mosiah2 commissions Alma1 to establish this same church community in Zarahemla.

Furthermore, Mosiah2 may have noticed a distinct advantage of Alma1’s approach: by severing the connection between the civic community and the covenant community, the covenant community could prosper independently from the civic community; their fortunes would be dis-entwined. Furthermore, new people and peoples could unite with Alma1’s new religious community without shifting their civic allegiances. Put differently, for generations upon generations, Nephites had tried to convert the Lamanites by uniting the two peoples under one civic identity; the way to restore the Lamanites was to convince them of Nephi’s original right to rule. Political conversion was part and parcel with spiritual conversion.

But Alma1’s new covenant community sidelined all those questions entirely; a Lamanite could unite under the banner of Christ while still maintaining their cultural identity as Lamanites, and while still being subject to Lamanite kings — just as the people of Noah could unite with Alma1 while still being subject to Noah. It cannot be overstated how different and new this likely was for the people of Zarahemla. It may have been this precise innovation that allowed Ammon and Aaron to later launch the first truly successful missionary efforts among the Lamanites. For the first time, they had a covenant community that could both transcend and accommodate differing national and tribal allegiances.

The Rise of the Unbelievers

We have evidence that King Benjamin’s union of the people of Mosiah with the people of Zarahemla wasn’t entirely stable. There were very likely political and class divisions left over, and those divisions very likely fell along ancestral lines. And very shortly after Benjamin’s death, and the loss of his charismatic leadership, those divisions start to emerge once again. In my mind, these divisions were not likely religious in nature, to start with. They likely stemmed first from discontent among the (current) political underclass, who consisted largely of those whose parents and grandparents belonged to the displaced ruling class of Zarahemla.

As the people of Zarahemla had more and more encounters with the Lamanites, they became exposed to new narratives beyond (and differing from) the stories handed to them by Mosiah1. In the Lamanite narrative, their ancient father Lehi was a religious heretic who led his family away from the promised land, and Laman and Lemuel did their very best to preserve the original faith of their fathers in Jerusalem; all the while, Nephi was a thief and a liar. Note, this is not to say that the disaffected Zarahemla-ites were converted to the faith of the Lamanites; not at all, actually.

Rather, those Lamanite narratives merely drew into question the veracity of Mosiah1’s previously uncontested claim to continuity of divine authority. Mosiah1 ceased to be seen as a the one who restored their ancient faith to them, and started to become just one competing Lehite faction among many. And as this happened, the Israelite law, customs, and traditions (such as the Law of Moses and Israelite legal customs) that Mosiah1 established began to lose their luster. They grew nostalgic for the traditions and customs of their grandfathers, which had been stamped out by Mosiah1 and Benjamin.

Perhaps they also leaned on Zarahemla’s claim of having an actual Davidic king of Israel as their ancestor, while the Lehites had only Lehi, a man considered a religious heretic in Jerusalem and rejected by half his family as delusional. In this way, they may have borrowed from Lamanite narratives in their challenge against Mosiah2, which is why so many of these dissenters are later shown to be sympathetic with the Lamanites. The Lamanites and the disaffected people of Zarahemla both have ancestral stories that challenge Mosiah2’s claim to the throne in Zarahemla.

A Note on the Unbelievers

We sometimes read outrageous caricatures into the text that aren’t there. I don’t see this group of unbelievers as some riotous, fornicacious group of vile sinners, flouting all the norms of the community. I think we sometimes picture the conflict between the believers and unbelievers in Zarahemla terms of our modern disputes with secularism and progressivism, where “unbelievers” are those who reject faith claims and religious traditions entirely, in favor of outright relativist, secular, or progressive views.

That is not the case here (probably). First, their laws would not tolerate too much deviance from community norms. After all, this wasn’t some classical liberal society — it probably bore more resemblance to modern Saudi Arabia than to classic 18th century America. Yes, King Benjamin and King Mosiah were generous and benevolent leaders, but they established a legal structure that was heavily informed by, say, Deuteronomy and other Israelite texts. There was no constitutionally enshrined freedom of speech or religion. “Natural rights” simply weren’t a concept as we think of them today.

There might have been no law against a man’s beliefs, but many religious norms of the community were almost certainly enshrined in King Benjamin’s laws and enforced. A non-Israelite living in ancient Israel might not be compelled to worship the God of Israel, but he or she might be compelled to follow whatever Israelite laws they believed were handed to them by the God of Israel. It may be that the law of the Sabbath, for example, was a part of the community’s legal tradition (which may explain, perhaps, the Zoramites’ token observance of the Sabbath later in the book of Alma).

Furthermore, this was a pre-secular society; there was no atheism as we know it today. The kinds of disputes that were going on probably more closely resembled the differences between, again, more stringent and liberal factions within today’s Saudi Arabia. Nehor didn’t teach against the existence of God; he taught of a God that was less demanding and who would overlook our sins. Korihor’s more atheistic/secularist slant was deemed especially remarkable and distinct from heresies that had come before. In Mosiah2’s Zarahemla, the “unbelievers” weren’t atheists; they were those who quested after neighboring (or ancestral) faith traditions and differing legal norms.

In my current version of the story, the conflict perhaps centered on a movement to relax some elements of Nephite/Israelite legal tradition and to reassert some elements of Zarahemla’s prior heritage and tradition. Perhaps it was a call for more pluralism within their community, more respect and tolerance for the traditions of those in Zarahemla who wanted to honor their heritage. In contrast, King Benjamin’s laws were designed to make Israelite/Nephite belief and practice normative within the community. Hence, the aspirations of these dissidents may have been fundamentally incompatible with the legal system administered by King Mosiah2.

And since Mosiah2 was also considered a prophet of God, that legal system was treated as having a divine mandate — and so cultural and legal disputes transmuted rapidly into religious divisions as well. And this is also how this movement of unbelievers took on undertones of challenge against Mosiah1’s original right to leadership in Zarahemla to begin with, and thus Mosiah2’s subsequent kingship.

The Complicating Factor of Alma1’s Church

Paradoxically, the arrival of Alma1 and the establishment of the new church is precisely what allowed disaffected Zarahemla-ites to rally together as non-believers; under Benjamin’s system, they could not do so without alienating themselves from the civic community and making themselves enemies of the king. But under the new system, they could view themselves as distinct from the covenant followers of Christ without separating themselves from the body politic or — by virtue of that fact alone, at least — making themselves enemies of King Mosiah2.

Because Alma1 taught that baptism was a way of stepping into a faith community that was distinct from the broader civic community, some of King Benjamin’s followers may have seen this as a way of dividing the people instead of unifying them. Benjamin’s project was to make the two peoples one; some may have seen Alma1’s project as reversing course and making one people two. (And that was precisely what was happening.) These Benjamin-loyalists may have felt that being part of a covenant community should be one and the same with being part of the civic community, and that Alma1 and Mosiah2 were undoing King Benjamin’s legacy.

It may have also seemed like a bizarre usurpation of spiritual leadership for Alma1 to waltz in and set up churches that were led separately from Mosiah2’s current reign as successor to King Benjamin, and even more bizarre for Mosiah2 to embrace it. And so there may have been those under King Mosiah2 who deeply questioned his immediate friendship with Alma1, and the new religious community. Their loyalty to King Benjamin may have blinded them to the ways in which Alma1’s experiences and divine authority made him a natural spiritual successor to King Benjamin.

In this way, bizarre alliance may have formed between Benjamin-loyalists and Zarahemla dissidents. The Benjamin-loyalists, then, perhaps began to stir up the hearts of the people against Alma1’s new religious community and — by extension — Mosiah2’s embrace of Alma1’s spiritual leadership. And so they united with disaffected Zarahemla-ites who also challenged Mosiah2 and who also felt no kinship with Alma1’s church. Despite their fundamentally different complaints, these two groups found themselves with the same antagonists. They both had an interest in undermining Mosiah2’s reign as king — or, at least, in befriending and sponsoring a successor to Mosiah2, such as his son Aaron, who would champion their causes as king.

Culture wars make strange bedfellows, after all. For a modern-day comparison, picture the bizarre convergence of interests in the U.S. between progressive political factions and Muslims around the world. Both see (rightly or wrongly) conservative and Christian factions in the U.S. as their enemy, and so they find themselves sponsoring each others’ causes, despite their fundamentally different worldviews and priorities.

Going about, Hedging Up the Church

Perhaps Alma2, upon arrival in Zarahemla, had immediate sympathy for the Zarahemla-ite faction, given his unique experiences during the occupation of Helam. Those experiences makes him especially sensitive to the plight of the oppressed, and perhaps he has come to value pluralism and and general tolerance for different customs and traditions. Perhaps he began to compare Mosiah1’s “conquest” of Zarahemla with Amulon’s conquest of Helam. Perhaps the Mulekites have some legitimate grievances in their history along the way, to make this narrative more convincing.

But most importantly, in my version of the story, Alma2 is embittered by those experiences in Helam. Perhaps he lost a close friend or a loved one at the hands of Amulon. Perhaps he had felt that God should have preserved them from the hardships of captivity. The fact that Amulon had been so successful at finding and oppressing them signalled to Alma2 that his father and their faith community did not have the divine favor they claimed. In his anger, he is now estranged from his father (Alma1) and has little interest in his church. He is, as he would later describe, “in the gall of bitterness.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Ammon, Aaron, and their brothers were Benjamin-loyalists, having grown up with their grandfather as king, being tutored by him. Perhaps they were figureheads in the movement to undermine and question Alma1’s spiritual leadership, in favor of Benjamin’s prior, unified political-religious community. And so they went about the land, “hedging up” this new church and undermining the efforts of those attempting to unify the people under this new spiritual community. Aaron tells the people that when he becomes king, he will not be recognizing Alma1’s authority as Benjamin’s spiritual successor — a devastating blow to Alma1’s missionary efforts in the community.

Together, Alma2, Aaron, and Aaron’s brothers champion both the causes of the Benjamin-loyalists and the Zarahemla dissidents. By promising to relax the strictures of the Law of Moses in favor of pluralism, and even reasserting some key aspects of Zarahemla legal tradition, Aaron can rally the disaffected Zarahemla-ites against the new church led by Alma1. Alma2’s friendship and efforts gives them a dramatic advantage against Alma1. Joining their efforts — relevant later in the story — are figures like Amlici. Others, like Nehor, are known sympathizers with the movement.

This causes Mosiah2 and Alma1 much dismay and heartache. Mosiah2 feels that his son Aaron is promising, as future king, to undo the work and legacy of both Benjamin and Mosiah1. Alma1 feels betrayed by his son Alma2, who is now stalling the work of bringing the people into a unity of faith. The conflicts and dissensions continue to grow, and even many in the Church began to contend with each other, and to “commit sin” of various sorts. Alma1 takes the matter to prayer, where he is taught by God about excommunication. Alma1 begins to excommunicate dissenters within the Church who are causing strife and contention.

While this helps to cement unity within the church, it has a secondary consequence of bolstering the reservations of those outside the church who doubt Alma1’s spiritual authority. Excommunication would not have even made sense under the prior order established by King Benjamin, so it just illustrates the foreignness of this new system. And so the disputes amplify. Mosiah2 sends out a proclamation that those not in the Church must not persecute or harrass Church members (and vice versa), a measure that is only partially successful.

Together, Mosiah2 and Alma1 pray and fast for their sons, their spiritual welfare, and the future of the church in a land that — under Aaron’s future kingship — may prove hostile to the new church altogether. Only a few years prior, the land was unified under Benjamin. That unity is coming apart at the seams, and to their dismay, it seems that Alma1’s new church is catalyzing the division. Could it be that the Benjamin-loyalists are right after all?

What happens next is part of a future post.

Series Navigation<< The Three Kingdoms of Laman, and the Four Tribes of NephiA Civil War in Zarahemla >>

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