Culture: The first organization of congregations has seven separate “churches,” each a specific congregation with separate priests and leaders. The text locates them “in the land of Zarahemla,” or greater area attached to the city of Zarahemla, not the city proper. Thus, it is probable that the seven represented pre-defined communities structured by the current living arrangements. One congregation would be the city of Zarahemla and the immediately surrounding farming district. The other six were probably dependent towns or hamlets that were some distance from Zarahemla, but which looked to Zarahemla for political/religious leadership. This latter definition is bolstered by the fact that Alma traveled to different cities. These first churches were probably created along the city/town/hamlet boundaries. Since seven is the ancient biblical number of perfection, having seven churches might be predictable regardless of any other organization. However, the number seven does not appear often enough in the Book of Mormon with that meaning to be a sufficient hypothesis. The Mesoamerican use of the number four seems to have replaced the Old World function of “seven.” (See commentary accompanying Mosiah 27:1.)
The text indicates that those who wished to take upon themselves the name of Yahweh-Messiah joined these churches. The taking of the name was Benjamin’s covenant. While we do not know specifically that Alma also activated the covenant by having his communicants adopt the name of Yahweh-Messiah, it certainly makes sense to continue to promote Benjamin’s covenant as well as Alma’s baptism.
Translation: The text specifies “the name of Christ, or of God.” The Nephite conception of their Atoning Messiah was that he was equivalent to Yahweh and, therefore, the same as their God. (See “Excursus: The Nephite Understanding of God,” following 1 Nephi 11.) This passage retains the sense of the original without the alterations that modern Saints would make to communicate distinctions that the Nephites did not understand. Of course we also understand Jesus as incarnate Yahweh, so there is no real difference in our understanding, only the problematic distinctions we make when we use “God” as an exclusive designator of the Father rather than Yahweh.