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.