Joseph Smith’s Last Dreams and Their Prophetic Implications
Moses endured great hardship, put forth much effort, and offered extensive sacrifices—even his own life as a ransom—in order to bring forth the law of God to the Israelites and try to get them to live by it.Yet, just before he was taken from among them, he indicated his foreknowledge of their eventual apostasy, saying:
“For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands.”
It is interesting the Lord would grant Moses this type of foreknowledge. Surely this would have been hard for him to bear. Nephi experienced heavy feelings after his grand vision wherein he was shown his people would eventually fall and be destroyed:
“And now I, Nephi, was grieved…because of the things which I had seen, and knew they must unavoidably come to pass because of the great wickedness of the children of men. And it came to pass that I was overcome because of my afflictions, for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people, for I had beheld their fall.”
Jesus’ apostles, in the meridian of time, likewise knew their ministry would end in apostasy and destruction. In Paul’s letter to his pupil Timothy, he clearly laid out his foreknowledge of the coming apostasy and his own martyrdom:
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ…Preach the word…reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.”
There does seem to be a pattern for the Lord revealing this type of insight to his servants in advance, and perhaps the knowledge of being involved in a losing fight is part of the burden of a prophet. It is an ultimate test to see if the receiver of the knowledge will still work with all their heart, might, mind, and strength to save those who are willing to be saved. Before the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred at Carthage Jail, he had several dreams that were symbolic and apocalyptic. They portended a future apostasy of the Latter-day Saints following his death, indicating his foreknowledge of this future falling away. The first dream of the steamboat occurred approximately four months before his death, the second steamboat dream came two nights before his death, and his dream of the farm came the night before the martyrdom.
Joseph Smith Dream of the Steamboat #1
“I was standing on a peninsula, in the midst of a vast body of water where there appeared to be a large harbor or pier built out for boats to come to. I was surrounded by my friends, and while looking at this harbor I saw a steamboat approaching the harbor. 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 that 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. I said I would have a frolic in the water first, if I did; and I drove off in 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 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, 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”
The steamboat can be seen to represent the Church, like the ‘old ship Zion.’ After being driven off course initially due to a blistering wind that almost caused many to drown, (which can be likened to opposition or persecution), Joseph was able to right up the boat. He sent it, and those on board, on their way with the exhortation to “take care of themselves.” Notice he now has no more interaction with the steamboat as it heads out to the channel. Amid storms and rough water, Joseph warned his friends near him that “if they did not understand the signs of the times and the spirit of prophecy, they would be apt to be lost.” It appears that Joseph was insinuating through his warning that each person must stand for himself and obtain this gift. It was only a few minutes after this admonition that the waves broke over the steamboat, destroying it and all on board. Thus, the sinking of the boat, or the apostasy of the Church and the Lord’s people, constitute a convincing and compelling sign of the times. His statement concerning the need for the spirit of prophecy—which is the testimony of Jesus—foreshadows the rest of his experience in the dream.
Joseph individually set out to swim in the water, stating he could manage “better than the steamboat did.” Despite their ridicule and laughter, he made his own attempt to traverse the waters alone. Having swam a short distance, he was overwhelmed by two giant waves which, with much effort on his part, he overcame. His ability to swim through the waves progressively increased to the point that the waves didn’t break over him at all. He then was able to swim with his shoulders out of the water, faster than a steamboat. The water continued to recede as his speed increased until eventually he was treading on top of the water at the speed of an arrow. At this juncture, Joseph was thoroughly enjoying himself. The progression depicted in his swimming experience symbolizes a personal journey “to the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man,” including personal development “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”It represents coming to know Jesus personally, which entails becoming like Him: this includes being possessed by His perfect love and empowered to perform the works and miracles He did. Eventually, every follower of Jesus Christ must learn to swim on their own rather than relying on the boat; Joseph’s likening of disciples to sailors or travelers intimates that they must understand how to take their bearings upon the treacherous seas of life, gaining the proper orientation to reach the shores of Zion. It is worth noting in the context of this dream that the boat may not always be safe, especially if it has holes or damage from false doctrine—preventing it from sailing correctly and withstanding a storm.
Joseph Smith Dream of the Steamboat #2
“While I was at Jordan’s in Iowa the other night, I dreamed that myself and my brother Hyrum went on board a steamboat lying in a small bay, near the great ocean. Shortly after we went on board there was an alarm of fire, and I discovered that the boat had been anchored some distance from the shore, out in the bay, and that an escape from the fire, in the confusion, appeared hazardous: but, as delay was folly, Hyrum and I jumped overboard…On looking towards the burning boat in the east, we saw that it was drifting towards the wharf and the town, with a great flame and clouds of smoke; and, as if by whirlwind, the town was taking fire, too, so that the scene of destruction and horror of the frightened inhabitants were terrible. We proceeded on the bosom of the mighty deep and were soon out of sight of land. The ocean was still; the rays of the sun were bright and we forgot all the troubles of our mother earth. Just at that moment I heard the sound of a human voice, and turning around, saw my brother Samuel approaching towards us from the east. We stopped and he came up. After a moment’s conversation he informed me that he had been lonesome back there, and he had made up his mind to go with me across the mighty deep. We all started again, and 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 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 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.”
This dream is similar to its predecessor in many ways, including the rich symbolism of the characters not relying on the boat but swimming for themselves. Yet this one provides even more prophetic insight to the endtime, as it adds other elements not covered by the first steamboat dream. The steamboat, again, can represent the Church and the covenant people of the Lord very much like ‘the old ship Zion.’
The brothers heard the alarm of fire on the boat “some distance from the shore” and thus jumped overboard into the water. Many edited versions of this dream purposely leave out the fiery sinking of the ship, and yet it seems their desire to hide this portion of the dream only magnifies the dream’s indicting prophecy of apostasy. It is insightful that the fire started with Joseph and Hyrum in the boat, but they got out before the boat drifted in its flame-filled condition toward the town. The fire beginning on the boat and then consuming the town with destruction and horror represents the Lord’s judgments first being poured out upon His own people because of their apostasy. From there the fiery judgments expand, eventually coming upon all the inhabitants of the earth. The Lord clearly revealed this pattern, and its end-time fulfillment when He stated:
“Behold, vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth, a day of wrath, a day of burning, a day of desolation, of weeping, of mourning, and of lamentation; and as a whirlwind it shall come upon all the face of the earth, saith the Lord. And upon my house shall it begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord; First among those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me, and have blasphemed against me in the midst of my house, saith the Lord.”
Joseph and Hyrum proceeded to swim out into the calm ocean away from all of the destruction. They were soon joined by their brother Samuel, who had gotten out later than they had. Their departure from the steamboat, and their ensuing journey on the water by themselves, can represent their rising above the fallen, apostate condition of the boat, ascending to a Church of the Firstborn level. It can be likened to the sifting, or separation, of the wheat and tares—the gathering in of the wheat, and the destruction of the tares. That a great division took place is evidenced by the fact that not everybody jumped off the boat. The number of those who did was very small; it was only those with the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Samuel’s joining them later could symbolize different waves of people being delivered to safety—those who seek the Lord early experience greater blessings and security, while Samuel’s lament that he was lonely indicates that he had suffered more than Joseph and Hyrum for his delay.
The city “whose gold and silver steeples and towers were more beautiful than any [Joseph] had ever seen or heard of on earth” no doubt represents the city of Zion, the New Jerusalem. Having learned to swim on their own, they were able to make their way to this glorious place. Upon arriving, they were welcomed by friends, celebration, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Those who attain the same stature as these brethren await the same blessings in Zion, where indeed, Jesus dwells in the midst of His people.
Joseph Smith Dream of the Farm
“I was back in Kirtland, Ohio, and thought I would take a walk out by myself, and view my old farm, which I found grown up with weeds and brambles, and altogether bearing evidence of neglect and want of culture. I went into the barn which I found without floor or doors, with the weather boarding off, and was altogether in keeping with the farm. While I viewed the desolation around me, and was contemplating how it might be recovered from the curse upon it, there came rushing into the barn a company of furious men, who commenced to pick a quarrel with me. The leader of the party ordered me to leave the barn and the farm, stating it was none of mine, and that I must give up all hope of ever possessing it. I told him the farm was given me by the Church, and although I had not had any use of it for some time back, still I had not sold it, and according to righteous principles it belonged to me or the Church. He then grew furious, and began to rail upon me and threaten me, and said it never did belong to me nor the Church. I then told him that I did not think it worth contending about; that I had no desire to live upon it in its present state, and if he thought he had a better right I would not quarrel with him about it, but leave; but my assurance that I would not trouble him at present did not seem to satisfy him, as he seemed determined to quarrel with me, and threatened me with the destruction of my body. While he was thus engaged, pouring out his bitter words upon me, a rabble rushed in and nearly filled the barn, drew out their knives, and began to quarrel among themselves for the premises; and for a moment forgot me, at which time I took the opportunity to walk out of the barn about up to my ankles in mud. When I was a little distance from the barn I heard them screeching and screaming in a very distressed manner, as it appeared they had engaged in a general fight with their knives. While they were thus engaged the dream or vision ended”
In the beginning of the dream, Joseph is going back to his old farm. From this, we can glean that he has left, or died, and there has been a significant amount of time passed, as the farm is now described as “old.” He finds the farm in a degenerate condition, not having been taken care of; it is filled with weeds, brambles, and has clearly been neglected by those who were supposed to have been taking care of it. (Notice the similarities here with the parable of the nobleman and his vineyard found in D&C 101.) As Joseph went inside the barn, he found it “without floor or doors, with the weather boarding off.” No floor signifies the foundation has deteriorated, and the door being open implies that anyone can come in or out—including enemies, thieves, etc. The weather boarding off implies that the barn is no longer equipped or furnished to withstand the storms that surely have and will come upon it. Joseph then contemplates how he could recover this “desolation” from “the curse upon it.” The farm has thus been cursed; yet curses come as a consequence for disobedience to covenants that have been made. Thus, the fact that the farm has been cursed, it is labeled a desolation, it is without floor, doors, or weather boarding all serve as symbolic representations of apostasy. Although this is a more modern example, and farming is more relevant to this region and Joseph Smith’s time period, it is very similar to the way the Lord uses the allegory of the vineyard.
Those who had taken over the farm approached Joseph, demanding him to leave at once, and that he should never possess the farm again. After Joseph responded that the farm belonged to him, even though he hadn’t had use for it for some time, the leader of the group began to vehemently rail upon Joseph and threaten him. Weary of the contention, Joseph agreed to leave, assuring the man that he “had no desire to live upon it in its present state” anyway. Not satisfied at this, the man again threatened Joseph. At this point in the dream, a group of men entered the barn, began arguing and fighting with one another for the farm. Joseph then walked out of the barn up to his ankles in mud. In terms of scriptural symbolism, mud is an ominous sign. It is a metaphor for being trodden down by the judgments of the Lord.The presence of thick mud in the barn portends this eventual outcome for those who were stewards over it while Joseph was gone.
The farm has clearly been overrun and infiltrated by an enemy, a violent one at that. They want nothing to do with Joseph Smith, and are altogether offended by him. When challenged concerning their occupation of the farm, the invaders grew furious. Yet we pause to ask, why do they so badly want the farm? They certainly have not been taking care of it or cultivating the land. They have not nourished the soil, nor pulled the weeds. The barn is utterly rundown and has not been kept up or repaired in the slightest. The only conclusion one can make is that the reason they still want the farm is the money it’s worth. They would like to profit from it while they usurp ownership and disregard its care. Their willingness to kill both Joseph and the mob that entered indicates the apostate and wicked state of this company, or party of men. What is so interesting about this dream is that those who can only discern what is at the end of their nose will simply say that the Church is prosperous, and yet from a spiritual perspective, Joseph saw a desolate, neglected, deteriorating estate.
The farm can be looked at as the work of the Lord, or His great and marvelous work of spreading the gospel and gathering the House of Israel. The barn can be interpreted as the Church which has been responsible for taking care of the farm, or performing the work. When Joseph returns in the endtime, this will be the scene he comes to: a neglected farm and a dilapidated barn, a desolation which has happened because it has been infiltrated and overtaken by wicked men whose hearts are set on the money the property is worth. Rather than fighting, Joseph departs, letting the conspirators and the crowd war amongst themselves.
The content for this post has been taken from chapter 16 of my book Upon My House Shall It Begin. It is available in paperback and ebook.
Exodus 32:10-14, 30-32
1 Nephi 15:4-5
2 Timothy 4:1-6
Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:194–95
Moroni 7:47-48 cf. John 14:12, 17:3
Quote of Joseph Smith’s dream by W.W. Phelps, in Marlene Bateman Sullivan, By the Ministering of Angels, pps. 44-45
TPJS, p. 393-394 (June 27, 1844)
Isaiah 10:6, 41:25, 57:20