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The city of Zarahemla and surrounding area were not originally Nephite. Around 323 BC a Nephite man named Mosiah found the already built city. The Book of Mormon explains how Mosiah came to this land and was later made king:
- For behold, he [Mosiah] being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness—And it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him. And they departed out of the land into the wilderness ... until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla. And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews (Omni 1:12-14).
The people of Zarahemla had come from the land of Jerusalem under the leadership of Mulek, the only surviving son of King Zedekiah. The people of Zarahemla are thus often referred to as Mulekites. The Nephites taught the Mulekites their language and united to become one people, appointing Mosiah to be their king.
Zarahemla was the capital of the Nephite nation as well as the center of their government, religion, and culture. One LDS author put it this way:
- Zarahemla, the city founded by the Mulekites, became to the Nephites what Salt Lake City is to Latter-day Saints today (Garth A. Wilson, “The Mulekites,” Ensign, Mar. 1987, 60).
Although it was at the heart of the Nephite world, Zarahemla was not always a righteous city. Many Book of Mormon prophets are recorded chastising the people of Zarahemla.
When Christ was crucified in the old world, earthquakes and storms shook the Americas. During this time, Zarahemla caught fire and was destroyed. It was rebuilt later and became a large city. That city existed about 500 years. What eventually became of it and its inhabitants is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The location of Zarahemla is also not known, and the Church does not give any official statement about where it may be, though many members speculate about where it might have been.
During the life of Joseph Smith the name Zarahemla was revitalized as commanded in Doctrine and Covenants 125. Zarahemla became a small settlement in Lee County, Iowa, until 1842, when Joseph Smith dismembered the stake and had the members gather in Nauvoo. Zarahemla had its own stake with John Smith, the Prophet's uncle, presiding. Other prominent members were George A. Smith and his wife, Bathsheba Smith.
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FURTHER INSIGHT More recent evidence, gathered and published by men such as Bro. Rod Meldrum and others (and endorsed by at least one well-known general authority on a 4 hour DVD), from DNA markers and the writings of the prophet Joseph Smith strongly suggests that the geography of the Book of Mormon was the North American continent all along and has been misunderstood by critics of the church and members alike. Placing Zarahemla across the river from Nauvoo, according to a handwritten letter from Joseph to Emma (wherein he also refers to their walking across the 'plains of the Nephites' while on their trek to the 'borders of the Lamanites'), would then indicate the Mississippi River to be what the Nephites and Lamanites knew as the River Sidon. Additionally, we have the scriptures themselves to place the site.
D&C 125: 3 3 Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it.
It should be pointed out that the Lord does not indicate this to be a "New Zarahemla", as he does with the eventual New Jerusalem, but he retains the previous name the city once bore. That there were once quite large ancient cities and earthworks consistent with Nephite civilization along the Mississippi River is adequately and convincingly attested by the remains at Cahokia State Park and at other sites along that river and its tributaries.