Mormon's Warning: Ammonihah, Zarahemla and the Nephite Social Contract
Mormon's editorial work suggests that he saw Zarahemla as suffering from the same sins that corrupted Ammonihah.
There seems to be good reason to believe that The Book of Mormon’s primary editor, Mormon, intends for Samuel's speech in Helaman 13-15 to be a companion text to Alma and Amulek's words in Alma 9-13. Let's start from the beginning. Alma enters the city of Ammonihah, begins to preach, and is instead cast out. Samuel enters the city of Zarahemla, begins to preach, and is likewise cast out. Subsequently, each is commanded to return to his respective city. Each one must adopt new methods in order to follow the divine directive he has received: Samuel stands on a wall to deliver his message, and Alma sneaks into Ammonihah through a side entrance and finds (and trains) a missionary companion in order to deliver his. The message that each one is tasked with delivering is essentially the same: repent or be destroyed. It might be argued that this is always God's message and is in no way unique to these two stories, but the severity of the language in each instance distinguishes the Ammonihah/Zarahemla message from the standard call to repent and come unto Christ. As S. Kent Brown has observed, in the Ammonihah episode we get the sense that "God has declared His intent to undertake warlike action against [the people of Ammonihah]," a sentiment/message that "does not appear in the chapters immediately preceding or following Alma 8-16 [the Ammonihah narrative], rising here and then receding." Something similar might be said of Samuel's warnings in Helaman 13, which include terms -- such as "utter destruction," "heavy destruction" and "sword of justice" -- that connote a particularly severe and comprehensive instantiation of divine justice. Perhaps the most chilling phrase in Samuel's rhetorical repertoire is the one he deploys near the end of his remarks in Zarahemla, when he warns his Nephite audience that "except ye shall repent your houses shall be left unto you desolate," (Helaman 15:1). Coincidentally (or perhaps not), this aligns nicely with the story of Ammonihah, as the post-destruction toponym for that city was "Desolation of Nehors" (Alma 16:11).
As part of his response to Zeezrom's question about resurrection, Alma states the following concerning Judgement Day: "If we have hardened our hearts against the word, insomuch that it has not been found in us, then will our state be awful, for then we shall be condemned," (Alma 12:13). Samuel provides his Nephite audience with a very similar relationship between "hardness of heart" and the absence of the word: "Therefore, thus saith the Lord: Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them," (Helaman 13:8). Finally, the two texts are also linked by their shared warning of destruction by "famine," "pestilence" and "sword," (Alma 10:22, Helaman 13:9), as well as by the teaching that destruction is imminent rather than immediate only because of the righteous inhabitants of each city (Alma 10:22, Helaman 13:13).
These and other points of contact between the Ammonihah and Samuel the Lamanite narratives, along with the editor's frequent reminders that both stories are shaped by his own hands (see Alma 11:46, 13:31 and Helaman 14:1), lead to the conclusion that Mormon wants us to compare the two. I think that this project is especially fruitful when the Ammonihah narrative is used as a guide to the nature of Nephite sins, where Zarahemla's wickedness is understood as the particular form of wickedness practiced by the people of Ammonihah. What form of wickedness was Ammonihah practicing? Nehorism. What is Nehorism? Nehorism is the institutionalized version of opposition to the Nephite church established (and then re-established) by Alma the Elder, first in the Zeniff colony in the land of Nephi (Mosiah 18), and later in Mosiah II's kingdom in Zarahemla and its surrounding lands (Mosiah 25).
What does this mean, really? As Kylie Turley has pointed out, Nehor, his followers and the larger social movement they grow out of (see Mosiah 26 for descriptions of ecclesiastical unrest that anticipate Nehor, Amlici and the people of Ammonihah) are connected by their opposition to the social implications of membership in the church: "The Church of God is seeking for this communal Zion kind of approach, if you will, and the unbelievers are pushing back against that at every turn." For example, in the Nephite church, priests "labor[ed] with their own hands for their support," whereas Nehor taught that priests "ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people." The practice in the Nephite church was that members "should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had," and it was this same generosity and liberalness that caused Nehor's followers to persecute members of this church, even after Nehor's execution on the hill Manti. Indeed, Nehor, Amlici, Ammonihah and the other dissident groups strewn throughout the book of Alma, distinct though they may be, seemed to be linked by this almost Nietzschean disdain for the radically egalitarian and inclusive social project, premised on principles of humility, charity and general emulation of Christ, that was coterminous with the Nephite church established by Alma.
Thus, when Mormon draws a comparison between Zarahemla and Ammonihah, he's in effect asking us to consider the claim that Nephite civilization had faltered at that point in time because they were no longer committed to the beautiful, Christ-fueled and world-transforming socio-economic project inaugurated by a penitent priest and his flock in a wilderness on the outskirts of Noah's kingdom.