Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Church in Zarahemla

We begin with an interesting research question: Could we locate the seven churches Alma1 founded in the greater land of Zarahemla Mosiah 25:23 ca. 120 B.C.? Terms of  interest in the text include variations of:
  • baptize
  • church
  • establish
  • ordain
  • order
  • people of God
  • priests and teachers
  • regulate
Alma1 founded a church in the wilderness of Mormon near the local land of Nephi ca. 147 B.C. Mosiah 18:17, Mosiah 23:16 when he was about 26 years old. We derive his age by calculating backward from Mosiah 29:45. 27 years later, ca. 120 B.C., Alma1 and his flock of several hundred Mosiah 18:35 arrived in the local land of Zarahemla Mosiah 24:25 where King Mosiah2 immediately recognized Alma's priesthood and moral authority Mosiah 25:14. Soon, Alma1 had founded seven churches throughout the greater land of Zarahemla Mosiah 25:23.

Had the church existed in the greater land of Zarahemla before Alma1 arrived ca. 120 B.C.? Yes. King Benjamin called priests to teach the gospel Mosiah 6:3 and Ammon at the court of King Limhi knew he held priesthood authority to baptize although he felt personally unworthy to exercise it Mosiah 21:33. But, Alma1 was such a towering spiritual figure that King Mosiah2 entrusted him with ecclesiastical affairs Mosiah 26:8 as the senior high priest Mosiah 26:7 throughout the greater land of Zarahemla.

How large were the church congregations Alma1 established? The text does not say, but we have some parameters to consider:
  • As a young church leader in the land of Mormon, Alma1 consecrated one priest for every fifty congregants Mosiah 18:18. Multiple priests and teachers were ordained for each church unit Mosiah 25:19 in Zarahemla. So, a few hundred believers was probably the minimum number required to plant a new church.
  • Another name for churches was "bodies" Mosiah 25:21. The text explicitly says the church bodies in Alma's day were large Mosiah 25:15.
  • One criterion for dividing people into a new church body was simply the number of people who could gather in one place and listen to a speaker together Mosiah 25:20. This implies an upper limit of several thousand members per congregation.
  • In the great awakening that followed the Amlicite war, about 3,500 people joined the church throughout the greater land of Zarahemla in one year Alma 4:5
We know that Alma1 regulated the affairs of the church Mosiah 26:37 supported by an able lay ministry Mosiah 27:5. During his 29 year tenure as the presiding high priest in the greater land of Zarahemla, many people were baptized Mosiah 26:37, some of them by Alma1 himself Mosiah 25:18. The aged leader ordained his son, Alma2 , to succeed him as high priest over the church Mosiah 29:42 and passed away ca. 91 B.C. at age 82 Mosiah 29:45. The text is silent about Alma's journeys on the preaching circuit or specifics about any individual church. We do know that the church of God was generally established throughout all the lands subject to King MosiahMosiah 25:19, Mosiah 27:35. So, where were these lands and churches?

Fortunately, Almawas one of the principal Nephite record keepers and we have detailed information about his life and ministry. Soon after Almawas ordained high priest by his father and given charge over all the affairs of the church, he was also appointed chief judge by the voice of the people Mosiah 29:42. He occupied this dual role for approximately eight years from ca. 91 B.C. to ca. 83 B.C. Alma 4:18. During those years, he presided over capital cases Alma 1:14, led the Nephite armies in battle Alma 2:16, and baptized many in the waters of Sidon Alma 4:4. Then, in the ninth year of the reign of the judges, Almaturned the chief judgeship over to Nephihah Alma 4:20 and began his famous missionary journeys bearing pure testimony Alma 4:19.

Alma2 taught and ordained priests and teachers to preside and watch over the church that was previously established in the city of Zarahemla Alma 6:1. So, we know that one of the seven churches founded by Alma1 was in the capital city of Zarahemla. Alma 5:1-2 implies that there were other churches in the local land of Zarahemla in addition to the one in the principal city. Analyzing ancient settlement pattern data in our proposed local land of Zarahemla, three densely populated regions stand out - the Emiliano Zapata area which we correlate with the city of Zarahemla, the Balancan area, and the Palenque area. These regions are shown as white circles (average radius 12.5 kilometers) in the map below.
3 areas with large populations anciently in our proposed
local land of Zarahemla
We propose that three of Alma's seven churches were in the local land of Zarahemla, roughly corresponding to the locations indicated in the map above.

Alma2 then crossed the river and taught and established the order of the church in the land of Gideon as he had previously done in Zarahemla Alma 8:1. The church in Gideon, though, was already established before Alma's arrival Alma 6:8. In fact, Alma2 apologized to the good people of Gideon - since becoming high priest over eight years ago, he had never before communicated with them face to face Alma 7:1. From this we learn that one of the seven churches founded by Alma1 was in the land of Gideon.
One of Alma's seven churches was in Gideon
Next on Alma's itinerary was the land of Melek west of the river. Almataught and baptized Alma 8:4-5 in Melek as he had previously done in Zarahemla. This verbiage indicates he was working within an existing church organization as a visiting authority with convening power rather than calling leaders and planting a new church. So, another of Alma's seven churches was in the land of Melek.
Proposed land of Melek west of Sidon, another of
Alma's original seven churches
After Melek, Almaventured into hostile territory in apostate Ammonihah three day's north of Melek Alma 8:6. The church of Nehor, later led by Amlici, was headquartered in Ammonihah Alma 14:16-18, Alma 15:15, Alma 16:11. Nevertheless, the text makes it clear that prior to Nehor and Amlici the church of God had been established in Ammonihah.
  • Nehor's preaching, particularly successful in Ammonihah, disparaged the true church Alma 1:3
  • Nehor preached against the prevailing order of lay ministry among priests & teachers Alma 1:3
  • Alma's original intent in Ammonihah was to teach and baptize just as he had done in Zarahemla and Melek Alma 8:8-10
  • Amulek was a Nephite living in predominantly Amlicite Ammonihah Alma 8:20. Discussing events five years earlier, Mormon emphasized the contemporary meaning of the term "Nephite" in the post-Amlicite war era Alma 3:11. Thus, Amulek was a believer, a member of the church of God, albeit one who had backslid during much of his adult life Alma 10:5-6. Almadid not have to baptize or ordain his missionary companion.
  • Even though the Amlicites held a deep-seated aversion to the Nephite scriptures Alma 14:8, copies were widely available among the people of Ammonihah Alma 14:1.
Therefore, we suggest that one of Alma's seven original churches was in the land of Ammonihah. 
Proposed land of Ammonihah where the true church once existed
The seventh church we believe was probably in the land of Minon south of and upstream from the local land of Zarahemla, although nothing in the text explicitly indicates this. The only other candidates might be the lands of Noah or less likely, Manti, or the city of Aaron, all attested in the text by ca. 82 B.C. By the time of  Almaand the four sons of Mosiah2, Manti was well-established along the north south Zarahemla to Nephi corridor Alma 16:7, and eventually Almaattempted to travel there Alma 17:1. In the ca. 120 B.C. time frame, though, when Almafounded the seven churches, people were still getting lost trying to travel between Nephi and Zarahemla and vice versa (see the blog article "Water Fight on the River - Round Five"). It is not likely that Manti was part of the Nephite nation at that early date. Noah and Aaron are less likely than Minon simply because they are further away from the local land of Zarahemla. When Almagot to the land of Sidom, ca. 81 B.C., he founded the church there Alma 15:13. Sidom was distant enough from the Nephite culture core it had only recently been brought into Zarahemla's orbit. The same was probably true for Noah and Aaron. So, we propose that one of Alma's seven churches was in the land of Minon.
Proposed seven churches in the greater land of Zarahemla
Mosiah 27:2 says that the seven churches founded by Almawere in the "land round about" the city of Zarahemla. Mosiah 27:32 adds that they were "round about through all the land". The red line shows our interpretation of this circularity.
Seven churches in the land round about Zarahemla
How far distant were the seven church bodies from each other? In our correlation above, the red circle has a radius of 65 kilometers. The text says Alma's most arduous journey Alma 8:3 on this circuit was the one from the city of Zarahemla to Melek, shown in magenta on the map below. The term "take journey" in Nephite parlance implies long, tough travel.
Proposed journey from the city of Zarahemla to the land of Melek
The Zarahemla to Melek journey plotted above runs for 135 air (straight-line) kilometers which would require about 9 day's travel according to our standard metric (see the blog article "Land Southward Travel Times"). Highest elevation en route: 388 meters.

The text evidences an all too human pattern of societal upheaval followed by resurgent interest in religion. Some examples:
  • In Mosiah 25, ca. 120 B.C., Nephite society in the greater land of Zarahemla was fundamentally transformed with the influx of Alma's and King Limhi's peoples. King Mosiahauthorized Alma1 to establish churches throughout all the land Mosiah 25:19.
  • In Alma 4, ca. 86 B.C., the Nephites were suffering because of the severe devastation brought on by the Amlicite war Alma 4:2-3. They began to establish the church more fully and many were baptized Alma 4:4.
  • In Alma 45, ca. 73 B.C., the war with Zerahemnah caused massive casualties Alma 44:21 and major disruptions in the church Alma 45:21. Helaman led a nationwide renewal throughout the church organization Alma 45:22.
  • In Alma 62, ca. 57 B.C., following the lengthy war with Amalickiah/Ammoron, the church was in disarray. Once again, Helaman led a resurgence throughout all the land Alma 62:44-46.