Why do Mormons Believe that Satan Controls the Water?

Most Mormons raised in the Church have a vague understanding that Satan controls the water. This is occasionally seen as a folk-doctrine explanation for why missionaries aren’t allowed to swim, or why Mormons in general don’t swim on Sunday.

Curiously, many active members don’t realize that this doctrine comes from a canonized revelation directing Joseph Smith to stop traveling by the canoe that God had instructed him to use a few days previously.

A Trip to Zion

From June to August 1831, Joseph and some of his top lieutenants, including Martin Harris, Sydney Rigdon, Edward Partridge, W. W. Phelps, and Ezra Booth, left Kirtland, Ohio, for Missouri, where they met up with Oliver Cowdery.

There, Joseph revealed that Independence, Missouri, was to be “the place for the city of Zion.” The city was duly dedicated by Rigdon for a possession and inheritance for the Saints, and Joseph laid a symbolic cornerstone of the temple on its revealed location.

About a week later, the men were ready to return home to Kirtland. Joseph gave them the will of the Lord:

Verily, I will speak unto you concerning your journey unto the land from whence you came. Let there be a craft made, or bought, as seemeth you good, it mattereth not unto me, and take your journey speedily for the place which is called St. Louis.

Canoes were procured and the party embarked.

The Destroyer

Joseph explained that on the third day of their return trip, they ran into “many of the dangers so common upon the western waters,” and “Brother Phelps, in open vision by daylight, saw the destroyer in his most horrible power, ride upon the face of the water.” Joseph wrote,

The next morning after prayer, I received [D&C 61]:
Behold, I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters. Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters. And it shall be said in days to come that none is able to go up to the land of Zion upon the waters, but he that is upright in heart…
And now I give unto you a commandment that what I say unto one I say unto all, that you shall forewarn your brethren concerning these waters, that they come not in journeying upon them, lest their faith fail and they are caught in snares; I, the Lord, have decreed, and the destroyer rideth upon the face thereof, and I revoke not the decree…
And now, concerning my servants, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, let them come not again upon the waters, save it be upon the canal, while journeying unto their homes; or in other words they shall not come upon the waters to journey, save upon the canal.

Ezra Booth’s Account

We have some more details of this incident from Joseph’s companion Ezra Booth.

Booth was a Methodist minister before converting to Mormonism. His stature as an experienced preacher resulted in him being quickly given some prominence by Joseph, who was still in his early twenties. However, Booth left Mormonism shortly after accompanying Joseph to Missouri, and wrote a series of letters detailing his experience with the Saints.

In one of these letters, originally to Edward Partridge, Booth charges that Joseph found canoeing to be more difficult than he expected and invented the “destroyer” revelation to get out of the previous divine mandate to travel that way:

The conduct of the Elders became very displeasing to Oliver, who, in the greatness of his power, uttered this malediction: “as the Lord God liveth, if you do not behave better, some accident will befall you…”
[I]n the afternoon of the third day, [Joseph] assumed the direction of affairs on board [his] canoe, which, with other matters of difference, together with Oliver’s curse, increased the irritation of the crew, who, in time of danger, refused to exert their physical powers, in consequence of which they ran foul of [an uprooted tree], and were in danger of upsetting…
The next morning Joseph manifested an aversion to risk his person any more upon the rough and angry current of the Missouri… and he again had recourse to his usual method of freeing himself from the embarrassments of a former commandment, by obtaining another in opposition to it…
It was decreed that we should proceed on our journey by land, and preach by the way as we passed along. Joseph, Sidney, and Oliver, were to press their way forward with all possible speed, and to preach only in Cincinnati; and there they were to lift up their voices, and proclaim against the whole of that wicked city. The method by which Joseph and Co. designed to proceed home, it was discovered, would be very expensive. “The Lord don’t care how much money it takes to get us home,” said Sidney. Not satisfied with the money they received from [Partridge], they used their best endeavors to exact money from others, who had but little; telling them, in substance, “you can beg your passage on foot, but as we are to travel in the stage, we must have money.”

Can we trust Booth?

It’s impossible to say whether this was indeed a revelation of convenience as Booth suggests, or whether Booth simply exaggerated his account of this incident in accordance with his stated purpose “to prevent the spread of [the Mormon] delusion.”

On the one hand, Booth is largely accurate in his letters, and the broad outline of his account here corresponds with what we know from Joseph’s own. Even the Church’s Joseph Smith Papers project accepts Booth’s historical background as accurate.

On the other, Booth is clearly coloring his account to paint Joseph in as negative a light as possible. This commentary must be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Since we have no other primary sources available, responsible historians will resist the temptation to exaggerate how certain we can be as to what exactly happened here. Still, we can take an educated guess by looking for more evidence external to the incident itself. The questions we might ask include:

  1. Is the doctrine of Satan controlling the water a good fit with the rest of Joseph’s theology, or is it more of a puzzling one-off revelation like Zelph or Adamic or the Kinderhook Plates that happened to get canonized?
  2. If Satan controlled the waters, what other kinds of mischief would we expect him to use that power for? Would he look to cause more catastrophes, much larger in scope than capsizing Joseph’s canoe, like the recent Fukushima tsunami? Or are geological forces and physics sufficient to explain natural disasters?

No doubt the reader can come up with others.

Further Reading