In the summer of 2007, while working for retired church history instructor and author, Paul Thomas Smith, I came across this little-known account of Joseph Smith. Few pieces of literature have ever touched my mind and soul as deeply as this has and I’ve longed to share this account with others.
In the years leading up to his death, the Prophet Joseph Smith had received many strong premonitions of his impending martyrdom.
On 22 June 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum attempted to escape Nauvoo and flee to the Rocky Mountains. Quoting from the History of Church at “About midnight, Joseph, Hyrum and Dr. Richards called for Orrin P. Rockwell at his lodgings, and all went up the river bank until they found Aaron Johnson’s boat, which they got into, and started about 2 a. m. to cross the Mississippi river. Orrin P. Rockwell rowed the skiff, which was very leaky, so that it kept Joseph, Hyrum and the doctor busy bailing out the water with their boots and shoes to prevent it from sinking.”
“Joseph, Hyrum and Dr. Richards walked up to Captain John Killien’s house, where they arrived at sunrise; but he not being at home, they went from thence to Brother William Jordan’s.” According to W. W. Phelps, Joseph Smith said that he had a prophetic dream shortly thereafter, while at the home of William Jordan.
Then, at about nine in the morning, Joseph was given a letter by Governor Ford and heard reports that some of his friends were essentially calling him a coward for leaving Nauvoo. The Prophet then made the now infamous statement, “If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to myself.” He then decided to return to Nauvoo and was eventually martyred at Carthage Jail. (Sources: History of the Church – 6:29, 6:30, 6:31)
It was while he was on his way to Carthage, that Joseph Smith allegedly told his brother Hyrum and W. W. Phelps about this dream he had while at the home of William Jordan. Many years later, W. W. Phelps published this account.
The Symbolism of Joseph Smith’s Last Dream
Before I get into the symbolism, I want to mention a few things that may have influenced the dream. Because if the account is true, it has a rather interesting origin. Have you ever seen The Wizard of Oz? In that movie, Dorothy has experiences in her real life that are later embellished in her dream about Oz. Joseph Smith’s dream appears to be much like that.
Joseph and his brother Hyrum had left much of the civilized world behind them as they went west across the Mississippi River. Their boat was leaky and so there was a chance that the boat might sink. When they made it to the other side, Joseph likely felt a sense of relief, believing that he and his brother Hyrum might have made it to safety.
As Joseph slept, the events of the past few hours were embellished in his dream. The leaky boat became a large steamboat that catches fire; the Mississippi River became a great ocean and as they walked forward they felt like they were leaving all of their troubles behind them.
When Joseph woke up from this beautiful dream, he was likely reminded of the persecution and anguish on the other side of the river. Falling asleep, he has a second dream about being on the other side of the ocean. This dream is filled with carnage and destruction.
While the authenticity of the account requires thoughtful research, there is no doubt that it is clothed with powerful symbolism.
In the years that have followed, I have researched and pondered the symbolism found in Joseph Smith’s Last Dream and have unconvered a few possible interpretations, as well as personal applications. My list is by no means comprehensive or scholarly, but perhaps you’ll find it useful in understanding the account for yourself.
“I and Hyrum jumped overboard, and tried our faith at walking upon the water.” Joseph Smith’s Last Dream is clearly foreshadowing his eventual martyrdom. Joseph and Hyrum leap from the fiery steamboat (symbolic of their troubles in the world) and leave the shore (or civilization) behind to enter into heaven.
“At first we sank in the water nearly to our knees, but as we proceeded we increased in faith, and were soon able to walk upon the water.” In the scriptures, water can symbolize being clean, but it can also symbolize chaos, doubt, sin, confusion, death and fear (just think of the story of Peter walking on the water). The fact that Joseph and Hyrum are walking on the water is significant because it says that they have conquered the doubts and fears of mortal life through their faith in God.
“Just at that moment I heard the sound of a human voice, and, turning round, saw my brother Samuel H.” Samuel, the younger brother of Joseph and Hyrum, died of unknown causes (perhaps a hernia or internal bleeding) about a month after the martyrdom. When Samuel learned that Joseph and Hyrum were in Carthage Jail, Samuel bought a racehorse and galloped to Carthage as fast as he could in order to help his brothers. He was one of the first Mormons on the scene after his brothers were killed. Some have speculated that his ride into Carthage scared off the mob and that his hard riding caused the internal bleeding that eventually killed him. The fact that Samuel reunites with his brothers in the dream is prophetic, to say the least.
Apart from those symbols, Joseph Smith’s Last Dream has some remarkable parallels to Joseph Smith’s Fist Vision. I’ll name but a few:
- In the First Vision, Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ in “a pillar of light” while in his Last Dream he saw “the light of God himself at the return of three of his sons.”
- Prior to seeing the pillar of light in the First Vision, Joseph felt as if he would die. Prior to seeing the light of God himself in the Last Dream, Joseph and Hyrum felt as though they might die in the fire.
- In the First Vision, as Joseph exercised faith, he was delivered from darkness. In his Last Dream, as Joseph and Hyrum exercised their faith, they found they could walk upon the water.
- Joseph awoke from his First Vision, “lying on [his] back, looking up into heaven.” Joseph Smith awoke from his Last Dream after he had felt that he “was truly in heaven.”
According to my knowledge and understanding, these are sublime symbols that Phelps may not have considered.
Did Joseph Smith Really Have This Dream?
The fact that this account was not published until almost two decades after W. W. Phelps first heard it is a bit troublesome. Is it true? If so, how much of it is accurate? Or did Phelps make it all up for attention?
Frankly, because of the passage of time, and the fact that Joseph apparently only told Hyrum and W. W. Phelps about this dream, we will never really know whether or not this account is true.
Nevertheless, most, if not all religious texts, sayings, and scriptures have been written second-hand and years after they occurred. For example, all of the Savior’s words in the Bible are second-hand, and many of Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision were not published until at least a decade after the fact.
Be that as it may, this account is not scripture and there is nothing within it that is doctrinally binding. It is an account given by W. W. Phelps and we must simply regard it as such—nothing more. Furthermore, it is beyond anyone’s ability (educationally or spiritually) to confirm to you that this dream is true. As with most religiously significant events, there will never be enough evidence to either fully prove or fully refute their validity.
As for me, I personally believe that Joseph Smith actually had this dream. But that’s just my belief—no one else needs to believe it. In my mind, this dream represents a marvelous bookend to Joseph’s mission as a Prophet, symbolically telling the story of his martyrdom not as a horrifying tragedy but as a beautiful triumph.
On a more personal level, this account first came to me during a very difficult time in my life—a time when I felt as though I was treading through deep water. The symbolism of this dream—whether true or not—helped me to move forward not only in my life, but also in my faith. And as I proceeded, I soon found that I could walk upon the troubled waters of my soul.
Therefore, my intent in sharing this account with you is to hopefully inspire you on your own troubled waters—to move forward and increase in faith. The entire message of this account, the painting, and the videos is to keep moving forward in faith. To walk from the darkness and into the light.