In 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation identifying water as the devil’s domain. The revelation has been used as a rationale to explain the policy prohibiting missionaries from swimming. It’s a rationale that has seeped into Mormon memory. Yet for claiming to believe the doctrine, modern Mormons don’t actually live it. The role of water in Mormon history reveals a compelling story of settlers’ struggles to situate themselves against the wilds of a natural environment ill-disposed towards settlement. Historian Donald Worster has argued that understanding the environment’s role in defining historical events is crucial to accurate interpretation. The environment represents the “ground level” of the story. If left out, the story becomes distorted (Worster, “History as Natural History,” in The Wealth of History, 36.)The Dangers of the Missouri
In summer 1831, Joseph Smith visited the area for the first time, having received a revelation of its future as the Saints’ Zion. Jackson County was the promised land: for Mormon convert, the “health, richness of soil, good spring water, and other conveniences” was as “good as…[the] heart could wish” (William McLellin Journal, 83). Far-removed from the urban life of St. Louis, and from “the cheering voice of civilized man,” western Missouri was also largely inaccessible and dying economically (Hampshire Gazette, July 31, 1831; Boston Recorder, August 13, 1829). When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled the Missouri River, they constantly found vulnerable to the possibility of sinking or death (Travels to the Source of the Missouri River, 1:27, 40, 343). Accidents were common (Baltimore Patriot, December 31, 1831; “More Autobiography,” National Aegis, November 11, 1829). There were, according to one report, “insuperable difficulties of navigating the Missouri River.” With its “numerous sand bars…sawyers, and the rapidity of its marriage,” the river presented myriad dangers (Hampshire Gazette, June 23, 1830).
In August 1831, Joseph declared that the Lord has “decreed…many destructions upon the waters; yea, and especially uponthese waters.” “The destroyer rideth upon the face” of the Missouri River and that he should “forewarn his brethren [his] brethren concerning these waters” (D&C 61:5, 19). It was not to be used for transportation. Aside from the restriction on using river transportation, the Saints never drew on the scripture again in defining their view of the elements. But the dangers of the Missouri River system indicate the vulnerability the Mormons faced in settling western Missouri. New convert William McLellin expresses no hesitance about performing baptisms in the river system (McLellin journal, 135, 335). When the Saints later settled in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith gave them no warning about traveling the Mississippi. The revelation was a specific revelation in reference to a specific context.
Today, the revelation is still evoked to justify missionary policy, even though Mormons professionally swim and surf. By placing the revelation in historical context, it represents an interpretation truer to the world in which Joseph Smith lived.