Faith and Religion

The Symbolic Dreams of Joseph Smith

By June of 1844, men like William and Wilson Law, Austin Cowles, Joseph Jackson, Sylvester Emmons, Robert and Charles Foster and Francis and Chauncy Higbee, were lifting up their heels against the Prophet, publishing false affidavits, spreading lies, and plotting against Joseph’s life.

Three Symbolic Dreams

Joseph Smith embraces his brother, Samuel Smith

In the closing weeks of the Prophet Joseph’s life, he had three highly symbolic dreams involving some of those enemies as well as the prophetic destiny of himself and two of his brothers. In one dream (History of the Church 6:461-462), Joseph was riding in a carriage near the  [Nauvoo] temple, accompanied by his guardian angel. Along the way, they encountered two large snakes so locked together that they had no power. Joseph’s guardian explained that the serpents represented Robert Foster and Chauncey Higbee.

Further out on the prairie, William and Wilson Law dragged Joseph from the carriage and threw him into a deep pit. As Joseph struggled to escape, he heard the Law brothers call to him for help. Wilson was in the grasp of a tiger, while William was blur in the face with green poison oozing from his mouth.

A huge serpent had coiled itself about william. The snake occasionally relaxed its grip long enough for William to cry out, “Oh! Brother Joseph, come and save me!” Joseph shouted in reply,  “I cannot, for you have put me into this deep pit.” The pit Joseph later found himself in was Carthage Jail.

An important part of the ministry of a prophet of God is to forewarn people of impending disaster as the result of sinful behavior. But there seems to be a point of no return. Those who willfully turn against the prophet’s counsel may find themselves, as did the Higbees and Laws, in the grasp of serpents—or worse.


Joseph had two dreams involving steamboats. Some steamboats had the capacity to carry large numbers of people long distances. But steamboats were dangerous; they could capsize or they could sink—their hulls could easily be penetrated by snags in the rivers, and their boilers could rupture, killing many through scalding stream and fire.

Joseph dreamed that he stood on a peninsula, facing a large harbor with a pier extending into the water. The pier was accessed by several bridges. Joseph saw a steamboat entering the harbor. A strong wind blew the boat under one of the bridges and upset the craft. I ran up to the boat,” said Joseph, “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.”

By now a storm was raging and the wind roiled the water. In the dream, Joseph turned to his friends and said regarding the ship’s passengers, “if they did not understand the signs of the times and the spirit of prophecy, they would be apt to be lost.” Seconds later, waves broke over the boat, which foundered and sank with all on board (Source: Quiet Slumber: Revelation Through Dreams)

On another occasion, Joseph dreamed that he and Hyrum boarded a large steamboat. It was anchored some distance from shore in a small bay near the ocean. The boat caught fire. Their only escape was to leap into the water. Joseph said, “[Hyrum and I] tried our faith at walking upon the water. 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.”

Looking toward the east, they watched as the steamboat drifted toward the wharf and the town engulfed in flame. There was great consternation among the officers, crew and passengers because of a magazine filled with ammunition on board. Said Joseph, “In a moment suddenly it blew up with a great noise and sank in the deep water with all on board.” The town took fire. Joseph said, “the scene of destruction and horrors of the frightened inhabitants was terrible.”

The key to survival of the first boat was, as Joseph said, “understanding the signs of the times and the spirit of prophecy.” The people on board were in peril from high winds that blew the craft against a pier and it capsized. Possessing great power and strength, Joseph was able to right the craft. He counseled the people to take care of themselves. but they foolishly returned to the ocean and a raging storm. The boat foundered and all were lost.

There are many perils in the last days that place people in great jeopardy. Through wise counsel, the living prophet can rescue them from a certain fate. But woe to them who return to the source of temptation, for they may be lost.

Ammunition & Apostasy

In the second instance, Joseph and Hyrum were onboard a ship with many others. On the ship was a source of destruction—gunpowder. Used properly, ammunition can protect and preserve people against the enemy. Improperly protected, the ammunition brings destruction and death to the people nearby.

Joseph faced opposition all throughout his life. Serious attempts were made to destroy him and the Saints. But the power of the priesthood and their personal righteousness provided protection to Joseph and the Church. But Joseph’s greatest danger came from those within the faith—people in positions of trust and leadership.

Not by choice, Joseph and Hyrum were forced from among those people. Being withdrawn brought the wrath of God upon the apostates and they and the nearby city were destroyed by fire. As Joseph and Hyrum moved away from the conflagration, Joseph looked toward the country beyond the city. He said, “Among the busy openings [I] saw William and Wilson Law endeavoring to escape from the wild beasts of the forest, but two lions rushed out of a thicket and devoured them.” Whether by large serpents or lions, the apostates faced a terrible fate. Not in this life, but in the world to come.

Samuel Smith

In both stories, Joseph was soon joined by his brother Samuel. Joseph and Hyrum were soon out of sight of land when they heard a familiar voice. They turned and saw Samuel coming to them from the east. “After a moment’s conversation he informed me that he had been lonesome back, and had made up his mind to go with me across the mighty deep.”

Samuel had ridden by horseback into Carthage to be with his brothers in prison. He was forced to flee for his life by a mob who chased him for many miles. That ride apparently brought about a hernia that led to Samuel’s death. Thus, in his quest to be with and to protect his brothers, Samuel died. He died as the third martyr.

Walking on the Water

Joseph Smith and Hyrum walking upon the water.

But what about them walking on the water? We think of the famous story of Christ walking past a boat transporting the apostles from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. We remember how Peter impulsively leapt out of the boat and tried to walk to Jesus, only to sink. He was mildly chastised for his lack of faith.

In the first dream, Joseph first told his friends that he could stem the waves and the storm and swim the waters more rapidly than the steamboat. They laughed and warned him that he would drown. “The waters looked clear and beautiful, though exceedingly rough,” said Joseph, “and I said I believed I could swim, and I would try it anyhow.”

Joseph swam a short distance. A towering wave threatened him, but he found himself on top, and atop a second wave. “I soon had power to swim with my head out of water, so the waves did not break over me at all.” He swam a great distance; faster, said Joseph, than a steamboat.

In the second dream, Joseph and Hyrum jumped from the burning steamboat. they sank to their knees in the water, but their faith increased and they were soon able to walk upon the water.

Water is also symbolic of many things. It is symbolic of life. Water surrounds an infant in the mother’s womb before birth. We drink water to replenish the balance in our bodies and without water, no food can be grown.

In a baptismal font, water is symbolic of redemption. In a Jewish mikveh, water cleanses a person from impurities.

When the seas heave themselves beyond their bounds, it is symbolic of the last days—of destruction and death. Walking upon the water is symbolic of having all power over this agent of life, this agent of redemption, and this agent of destruction.

As the Lord’s presiding representative in the last dispensation, Joseph Smith held the sealing key—a key with power over the elements. Hyrum was his associate president. Samuel, their brother, had likewise made the ultimate sacrifice that earned him the title of greatest honor—a martyr. They had won victory over their enemies. They had won victory over death and hell.

"Joseph Smith's Last Dream" by Jon McNaughton
“Joseph Smith’s Last Dream” by Jon McNaughton


The three brothers walked side by side. “We all started again,” said Joseph, “in a short time were blest with the first sight of a city, whose gold and silver steeples and towers were more beautiful than any I had ever seen or heard of on earth. It stood, as it were, upon the western shore of the mighty deep we were walking on, and its order and glory seemed far beyond the wisdom of man.”

“While we were gazing upon the perfection of the city,” said Joseph, “a small boat launched off from the port, and, almost as quick as thought, came to us. In an instant they took us on board and saluted us with a welcome, and with music such as is not on earth.

“The next scene, on landing, was more than I can describe: the greeting of old friends, the music from a thousand towers, and the light of God himself at the return of three of his sons, soothed my soul into a quiet and a joy that I felt as if I was truly in heaven. I gazed upon the splendor; I greeted my friends, I awoke, and lo, it was a dream!” (Source: W.W. Phelps, 1863 Salt Lake City Almanac)

Then followed June 27, 1844, at Carthage Jail.

Joseph Smith, the Martyr

In January of 1880, the Lord told Elder Wilford Woodruff: “My servant Joseph…sealed his testimony with his own blood, which testimony has been in force upon all the world from the hour of his death…let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake, for he that layeth down his life for my sake shall find it again and have eternal life” (Extract from “A Revelation to Wilford Woodruff in the Wilderness, 26 Jan 1880).

Note: The preceding article was written by LDS author, Paul Thomas Smith. I have made some minor, editorial changes and have reprinted it with his permission.



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