Historical: The separation of church and state that occurs in the kingdom of Zarahemla allows for the underlying tensions to become explicit. Once there is a separate entity that is not completely bound with the government of the land, disagreement with that separate church is easier, and takes off rapidly.
The rapidity with which these tensions arise is again suggestive that they have never really gone away. Despite Benjamin’s attempt to unify his people under the name of Christ, a single generation later that unity has disappeared. The religious tensions that cause the internal strife noted at the end of Words of Mormon have returned with a vengeance.
It is of value to note the social conditions of the kingdom of Zarahemla as we can deduce them.
First, we know that Zarahemla is the head city, but that there are probably dependent cities that are beholding to Zarahemla. One way of understanding this is the seven churches that are created. Those churches make the most sense if they are distributed to communities rather than remaining inside Zarahemla itself. Mesoamerican cities have ceremonial centers, but the living areas are typically widely dispersed around the ceremonial center. Comparatively few cities from this time period would have had the size to accommodate seven “churches” in a single ceremonial center.
We know that the makeup of Zarahemla society consists of at least four groups of people at this point. They are the lineal Nephites, the lineal Zarahemlaites/Mulekites, the people of Limhi, and the people of Alma. With these last two entering Zarahemla with a cohesive unit that was probably larger than could be easily absorbed into the current structure of the town/city of Zarahemla, it is virtually certain that these last two would have been assigned a separate location. As Alma’s group had already created one city for themselves (Helam) it would not be surprising if they were to start their own.
Thus we have a picture of Zarahemla as the head city in a confederation of cities. Because of travel times, each city would have its own organization and government (this will become more obvious as we discuss Alma’s travels in the book of Alma). With all of this division, it need not be surprising that entire city organizations would coalesce as pro- or anti- “church.”
Once again assuming a Mesoamerican context, a heritage that would have been strong among the Zarahemla-Mulekites and reinforced through trade contacts, the competition between the Mesoamerican religion and the Nephite religion would always be present.
That this very conflict resurfaces so frequently in precisely the same arena of conflict suggests that the Nephite religion was continuously opposed by a competing, and present, alternative religion. It does appear that to some extent the law of Moses was easier to accommodate in this competing religion, as that variation is the one we saw in the city of Lehi-Nephi under Noah. Indeed, some of the grave hostility against the Nephite religion may have to do with the opposition being a variant of the law of Moses. Typically, it is the religions that are close in beliefs and therefore in direct competition where grave and dangerous feelings arise. The persecutions suggest some of this closeness.
Textual: As noted at the end of chapter 26, the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon has no chapter break at this location. While there is a shift in context, in the original, the literary contrasts were more evident when the contrasting sections followed each other directly. The separation into chapters misses the structure of the original.