I’ve got dreams on my mind today. Years ago, while perusing the History of the Church books, I was surprised to discover an account of a strange dream from Joseph Smith (via Wilford Woodruff). I find it fascinating and I’ve never heard anyone refer to it, so I share it here:

“I was standing on a peninsula, in the midst of a vast body of water, where there appeared to be a large harbour or pier built out for boats to come into. I was surrounded by my friends, and while looking at this harbour I saw a steamboat approaching the harbour. There were bridges on the pier for persons to cross, and there came up a wind and drove the steamboat under one of the bridges and upset it.

“I ran up to the boat, expecting the persons would all drown; and wishing to do something to assist them, I put my hand against the side of the boat, and with one surge I shoved it under the bridge and righted it up, and then told them to take care of themselves. But it was not long before I saw them starting out into the channel or main body of the water again.

“The storms were raging and the waters rough. I said to my friends that if they did not understand the signs of the times and the spirit of prophecy, they would be apt to be lost.

“It was but a few moments after when we saw the waves break over the boat, and she soon foundered and went down with all on board.

“The storm and waters were still very rough; yet I told my friends around me that I believed I could stem those waves and storm, and swim in the waters better than the steamboat did; at any rate I was determined to try it. But my friends laughed at me, and told me I could not stand at all, but would be drowned.

“The waters looked clear and beautiful, though exceedingly rough; and I said I believed I could swim, and I would try it anyhow. They said I would drown. 1 said I would have a frolic in the water first, if I did; and I drove off into the raging waves.

“I had swam but a short distance when a towering wave overwhelmed me for a time; but I soon found myself on the top of it, and soon I met the second wave in the same way; and for a while I struggled hard to live in the midst of the storm and waves, and soon found I gained upon every wave, and skimmed the torrent better and better; and I soon had power to swim with my head out of water: so the waves did not break over me at all, and I found that I had swam a great distance; and in looking about me, I saw my brother Samuel by my side.
I asked him how he liked It. He said, ‘ First rate,’ and I thought so too. I was soon enabled to swim with my head and shoulders out of water, and I could swim as fast as any steamboat.

“In a little time it became calm, and I could rush through the water, and only go in to my loins, and soon I only went in to my knees, and finally could tread on the top of the water, and went almost with the speed of an arrow,
I said to Samuel, See how swift I can go! I thought it was great sport and pleasure to travel with such speed, and I awoke,”

I love this story for several reasons, but the one I want to touch on here is its ambiguous symbolism. Does the dream have an interpretation? If so, what was the steamboat, and who were the people on it?

Particularly interesting to me is the water. It was rough, and the boat was in danger for traveling on it. Joseph brought the boat safe into the harbor, but it refused to stay, instead returning to the perilous sea and finally sinking. This makes for a simple analogy of “the rough sea = the sinful world” and “the safe harbor = the church”, except that Joseph then decided to leave the harbor and set out on the waters himself, joined by his brother Samuel. And the dream makes the waters not just a neutral experience for them, but an exalting one — it is by striving within the waters that they eventually run on top of it. So there’s a nuance here beyond “safe = good, danger = bad” that I find compelling.

11 comments for “Dreams

  1. Jack
    December 8, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    The sea is Joseph’s untamed substance of deeper identity. The steamboat is the best device the “known” mind/identity can conjure up for navigating the deep — and it fails. The harbor is the known boundary of safety from the unknown depths. And the friends are the familiar cognitive notions of that safety.

    Joseph braves the terror of the depths of his identity and sees, next to himself, his brother Samuel who is a representation of his (Joseph’s) unbridled self — that part of him that has learned no fear from external strictures. He soon learns how to safely navigate the torrents of the great psychological “deep” and conquers himself completely.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    December 8, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Joseph’s growth in power over the raging waters is a result of his faith in God, that he will have the ability to triumph over the danger surging around him. In D&C 127:2, he said:

    “And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end, or bad, as you may choose to call it. Judge ye for yourselves. God knoweth all these things, whether it be good or bad. But nevertheless, deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me; and I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation; for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from henceforth; for behold, and lo, I shall triumph over all my enemies, for the Lord God hath spoken it.”

    Perhaps Joseph was recalling the images in this dream as he wrote this message to the Saints, a message that went on to describe the manner in which they should themselves go down into the waters in order to be baptized on behalf of the dead, transforming the waters of death into the waters of life as they descend as into the grave and then are figuratively resurrected.

    The gospel Joseph restored to mankind teaches that we all follow Adam in descending from heaven into the lone and dreary world, a world of chaos that seeks to cut us loose, but that we can grasp onto Christ, who is our firm foundation, the one who pulls us up out of the storm-tossed sea of Galilee, who seemed to be defeated by the wicked world, but who tricked the trickster and used his own death, his immersion in the earth, to rescue all the souls who had been lost, drowned in the days of Noah.

  3. Cameron N
    December 9, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing Dane. I was thinking of that same scripture verse while reading this, Raymond.

  4. December 9, 2010 at 8:24 am

    “… and finally could tread on the top of the water, and went almost with the speed of an arrow,I said to Samuel, See how swift I can go! I thought it was great sport and pleasure to travel with such speed, and I awoke,”>

    Not being sacrilegious here – but by the end of the story it sounds like Joseph is surfing without a surfboard.

  5. Dane Laverty
    December 9, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Jack, so, in your interpretation, the dream is personal — the waters are Joseph’s subconscious, the boat is Joseph’s construct of safety (and its insufficiency), Samuel is Joseph, and the “moral of the story” is that Joseph conquers his fears?

    danithew, that’s not sacrilege, that’s just awesome :)

    Raymond, my take is almost the opposite — Joseph’s triumph over the raging seas in this story is found not in his faith, but in his works. It’s through his persistent efforts in the face of adversity that he develops the ability to overcome. The way I see it, the dream teaches the message of Invictus,

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

  6. December 9, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Maybe Joseph just ate something undigestible–possibly fish–before retiring for the night to dream of the sea.

  7. Suleiman
    December 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Uhhh, fish is very digestible. Perhaps the dream was a result of Emma trying to poison him?

  8. December 9, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    The great and spacious steamboat?

    Joseph taught the people how to navigate the dangerous waters of life, and those who rejected his counsel continued on in their ways, drowning. This even after he attempted to rescue them.

    He showed others how one can navigate the waters of life, even when others did not believe him. At first, we see that he had to do his best and endure, but with time he became equal to the task, or even more than equal to the task.

    Samuel represents those who followed Joseph. They too could navigate the dangers of life if they just followed his example.

  9. December 12, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Fascinating dream – on the surface, the interpretation seems fairly obvious as stated above – but of course it could go deeper.

    I’ve been living in dreams a lot myself, recently, in part because I cannot sleep long enough to forget them in the usual way.

    Not to be rude, but the part about this dream of Joseph’s that struck me the most was how in the end he went into the water only up to his loins. Why his loins? And why is it that loins was a perfectly acceptable word for a prophet to use in describing his physical self, whereas some other words that I can think that play off of everyday things like the food that squirrel’s eat and round things that we throw, catch, kick and hit with a bat would have been unacceptable and even shocking.

    And you know how it feels when you are in water that reaches only to your loins and then stops right there. And was that water cold? You know what cold water does to loins.

  10. December 13, 2010 at 2:31 am

    danithew: search “walk on water (liquid mountaineering)” for some videos and info on a newer trend…

  11. December 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    So there’s a nuance here beyond “safe = good, danger = bad” that I find compelling.

    It is a good thing to ensure the safety of one’s cattle, since they lack the capacity to defend themselves in the wild.

    It is also a good thing to venture beyond the limits of a safe harbor in order to do any good in the world. It motivates the fulfilling of potential and development of abilities.

    I see the dream highlighting two separate stages of life. The young and untrained (children, new converts) need a safe place to nurture development; a cloister to protect them. Once experience is gained and talents are developing, it’s time to leave the nest and pursue other challenges. Not for the sake of challenge alone, but to grow in godly attributes and strengths. Overcome. Walking upon water represents divine power over lesser things.

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