This lesson covers seven chapters in Mosiah–a lot to cover in one lesson. Most of this discussion is from Moroni’s America.
When Alma “fled from the servants of king Noah” (Mosiah 18:1), he didn’t go far. He “went about privately among the people” to teach the gospel. Those who believed him went to the “place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons by wild beasts” (Mosiah 18:4).
The place of Mormon has unusual characteristics, being close enough to the city of LehiNephi for Alma to go about privately teaching, yet also in the borders infested by wild beasts. It was notable enough that the King named it, another indication of its proximity. One possible location for the “infested” land is the mountain ranges east of Chattanooga, which are natural borders and would harbor migrating or hibernating animals such as bears or wolves.
Verse 5 offers more description of the place Mormon:
“5 Now, there was in Mormon a fountain of pure water, and Alma resorted thither, there being near the water a thicket of small trees, where he did hide himself in the daytime from the searches of the king.”
You can get an idea of the general geography by looking at this map of the City of Nephi and surrounding areas:
There are plentiful natural springs in this area of Tennessee, some of which are tourist attractions today. The “thicket of small trees” suggests this particular fountain had been cleared, possibly to be developed as a water source.
It turns out there is a particular spring in Tennessee that has healing properties and has played important roles in history. Plus, the area was inhabited around 500 B.C. We’re still working on the archaeological details so I won’t name it specifically yet, but hopefully we will soon.
The text explains that the king sent spies and found out where Alma was assembling with his followers. [I think the spies took names and told the king, who sent his army to round up Alma’s people from their homes in the city and surrounding areas.]
The Lord warned Alma that the king’s army was coming, so he alerted the people (about 450 of them) and they “departed into the wilderness” (Mosiah 18:34) with their tents and families, as well as their flocks and grain (Mosiah 23:1).
Although the text does not give us directional information, it seems likely that Alma would move in the direction of Zarahemla—north and west—instead of deeper into Lamanite territory.
They “fled eight days’ journey into the wilderness and they came to a land, yeah even a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water” (Mosiah 23 3-4). They called the land Helam and “they built a city, which they called the city of Helam” (Mosiah 23: 19-20).
There are many places in Tennessee that fit this description. Most ancient sites have been destroyed, of course. There used to be hundreds of sites along the Tennessee River. The few that remain can give us an idea of what once existed. We also have records from some early explorations of ancient sites that no longer exist.
One candidate that has been preserved and can be visited today is Pinson Mounds, located approximately 200 miles northeast of Chattanooga and 28 miles from the Tennessee River. The 400-acre site is elevated above wetlands and a river that form its southern border. Over 30 mounds were constructed here over a long period of time. The probable age of some features is between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 260,[i] a reasonable fit for Alma’s early development in about 145 B.C. As is typical of many sites, mounds were added and developed in later years. The site includes the “second-tallest mound in the United States (Sauls Mound, at 72 feet) and a circular earthen enclosure similar to earthworks found in the Ohio Valley.”[ii]
Could Alma and his people travel 200 miles in 8 days? That’s an average of 25 miles per day, or about 8-10 hours of walking (or canoeing) at 2.5 to 3 miles per hour. Because they were fleeing from the Lamanites, this seems a reasonable estimate, even for a large group with animals. Alma’s people settled in for two decades.
About 20 to 24 years later, though, the army of Lamanites that was chasing Limhi’s people (and had found the priests of king Noah in the land of Amulon) came across Alma’s land of Helam. Alma surrendered to the army. An initially strange thing about this account is that this army chased the people of Limhi for two days before losing their tracks, at which point “they were lost in the wilderness” (Mosiah 22:16). How could they become lost after two days when they were following the tracks of a group of people? Even if they got lost, couldn’t they have simply turned around and made their way back to LehiNephi?
One possible answer is they feared being killed by the king of the Lamanites if they returned empty-handed. We learn in Mosiah 23 that they “had followed after the people of king Limhi” and “had been lost in the wilderness for many days” (Mosiah 23:30). This suggests they did not stop the pursuit of Limhi when they lost the tracks. Maybe they continued down the river. Every fork in a river must be explored, a laborious process.
At some point, the Lamanites stumbled upon the priests of king Noah, led by Amulon. Amulon and his brethren joined the Lamanites, but for some reason, Amulon also didn’t know the way back to the land of Nephi.
Continuing with the proposed geography, if the Lamanites had chased king Limhi’s people to the Duck River, they would have eventually reached the Tennessee River at a point about 30 miles downriver from a point due east of Pinson Mounds. They could have found Amulon in that area, a successful discovery that would have made it possible to return to their king. Hence, they “were traveling in the wilderness in search of the land of Nephi when they discovered the land of Helam” (Mosiah 23:35).
This sequence suggests they didn’t recognize the Tennessee River—the way back to the land of Nephi. Maybe they followed tributaries into the land of Helam. Alma had no problem showing them “the way that led to the land of Nephi” (Mosiah 23:37), which suggests the “way” was obvious, even though the Lamanites had missed it. What obvious “way” could there be other than a river? Alma would simply have to lead the Lamanite army to the Tennessee River and explain they needed to go upriver.
Of course, this is merely one of many scenarios possible in this area of the country. There are many other rivers and archaeological sites in Tennessee where the events described in the text could have taken place. Pinson Mounds is plausible, based on the text, and I like it because it can be visited today. Most ruins from this time period have been destroyed. Other plausible alternative settings for the land of Helam would likely be about the same distance northwest from the city of Nephi.
[i] Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., Pinson Mounds: Middle Woodland Ceremonialsim in the Midsouth(University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2013), p. 197.
Source: 2016 Gospel Doctrine Resource
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