“Many Wars and Serious Contentions”

Brant Gardner

Culture: What does it mean that the people of Zarahemla are “exceedingly numerous”? As I read it, they greatly outnumbered the Nephites (Mosiah 25:2), but still inhabited only a single land surrounding a single main city. Their influence is, therefore, not all that great. Later texts will indicate that Zarahemla had a regional influence, but that is not apparent at this early time.

Like the Nephites, they have had “wars and serious contentions” although Amaleki does not explain who their enemies were. The Zarahemlaites would not have typified their opponents as “Lamanites” because they would not have known the term. Furthermore, if the Nephites did not find the Zarahemlaites for three hundred years, then it is logical that the “true” Lamanites would not have found them either. This verse makes it incontestably clear that the Book of Mormon is speaking of, but not naming, indigenous peoples. In the context of Mesoamerican archaeology, this picture of war and political unrest fits what is known as the readjustment that must have accompanied the decline of the Olmec hegemony. The Zarahemlaites would be a group moving out of the homeland to a safer area.

Amaleki also states that the Zarahemlaite language has been corrupted, they brought no records with them, and they deny the Creator. First, we should understand the issue of language. Mormon later indicates that “the Hebrew hath been altered by us also” (Morm. 9:33) so that by the end of the record, at least, the Nephites are no longer speaking the language they left Jerusalem with. It is subtle but significant that Mormon uses the term “altered” while Mosiah1 says that the Zarahemlaites’ language has been “corrupted.” The connotations suggest an insider/outsider perspective. For the insider, changes are simply alterations. For the outsider who must confront “alterations”—particularly alterations of such magnitude that the other group cannot be understood—it is a case of “corruption.” The implication is not merely the development of a different dialect but a language. For instance, Appalachian English in the United States preserves older forms of British English and has done so since the seventeenth century. Even given the fact of constant communication between the two groups (greatly accelerated in the twentieth century by radio, television, and ease of travel), it does not seem unlikely that British and American English would remain mutually intelligible, with only dialectical differences. The Nephite and Zarahemlaite languages are not just different dialects. They are mutually unintelligible. At least one of the two is no longer speaking Hebrew, and possibly neither is.

The Mulekite lack of records is significant. Gary R. Whiting, an elder in the Community of Christ Church (formerly RLDS), suggests: “The lack of records had been a stumbling block for the Mulekites, in that without them to stabilize their language it had become corrupt.” Although this explanation is commonly accepted, it does not seem reasonable that possession of texts would have stopped or even necessarily slowed the pace of linguistic change. More probably, it is simply that, without records, there was no reason to preserve a language whose speakers could communicate only with a group of others that shrank with every generation. There was no reason not to adopt the language of the people among whom the Mulekites found themselves.

Assuming that they acquired the language of the Olmec area, they would have learned common Zoquean or common Mixean. If Sorenson’s candidate location of Zarahemla in the Grijalva River Basin is correct, the Zarahemlaites would have been in territory historically associated with Zoque speakers. I hypothesize that the Zarahemlaites/Mulekites were part of the historical movement of Zoquean speakers from the Oaxacan area up the Grijalva River Valley. It is perhaps because of their linguistic affinity with Zoquean speakers in the area that Amaleki described the Zarahemlaites as “exceedingly numerous”; he meant the speakers of the lingua franca of Zarahemla were exceeding numerous, not specifically those in residence in Zarahemla.

As already noted, one effect of the absence of records would have allowed the very rapid disappearance, possibly within three generations, of Hebrew speakers. The second effect, however, was the loss of their religion. Without scriptures, the Zarahemlaites lacked conceptual anchors to their ancestral religion and would have been more susceptible to the influence of local religions. Naturally, Amaleki describes this religious change as apostasy, which is, predictably, the Nephite perspective. Both the Nephites and Zarahemlaites began with the same God in Jerusalem. The Nephites have kept the God of the brass plates. Without the anchor of those plates, the Zarahemlaites have gradually adopted the deities of their new land.

When the Nephites arrived in Zarahemla, they were a smaller group merging into a larger body of people. Despite the merging, their language, material culture, and religion were all different. The inevitable tensions will help explain some of the future religious changes among the Nephites, in particular, the rise of churches during the time of Alma1.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3