Satan Controls the Water

MYTH: Satan Controls the Water


Almost every person who has served a mission will be familiar with this myth as it is often related to the universal rule that missionaries are not allowed to go swimming. Other variations of this myth include Satan controlling the oceans, lakes and rivers or Satan controlling water on Sundays.

It appears that this myth evolved as a way to discourage particular behavior. Obviously, if Satan controlled the water, then it would be dangerous for missionaries to go swimming. After all, who would Satan want to destroy more than those spreading the word of God? Likewise, Satan’s control of the waters on Sunday would certainly discourage the desire to break the Sabbath.

Interestingly, members of the LDS Church have never officially been cautioned to avoid water, and it appears that showers, baths and drinking water are okay without the need for special anti-devil filters on their faucets and plumbing.

So where does this myth come from? Well, it may actually have an interesting source. On August 12, 1831, Joseph Smith and a group of elders were traveling along the Missouri River when Elder William W. Phelps claimed to see a vision of “the destroyer” on the river. The preface for Doctrine and Covenants, section 61 reads:

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, on the bank of the Missouri River, McIlwaine’s Bend, August 12, 1831. HC 1: 202–205. On their return trip to Kirtland the Prophet and ten elders had traveled down the Missouri River in canoes. On the third day of the journey many dangers were experienced. Elder William W. Phelps, in daylight vision, saw the destroyer riding in power upon the face of the waters. [1]

Following Elder Phelps vision, Joseph Smith received the following revelation.

Behold, I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters.
Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters.
And it shall be said in days to come that none is able to go up to the land of Zion upon the waters, but he that is upright in heart.
And now I give unto you a commandment that what I say unto one I say unto all, that you shall forewarn your brethren concerning these waters, that they come not in journeying upon them, lest their faith fail and they are caught in snares;

I, the Lord, have decreed, and the destroyer rideth upon the face thereof, and I revoke not the decree. [2]

These verses indicate that the waters, by John’s command, were cursed and unsafe for travel, and “the destroyer” has power over them. The revelation then goes on to advise the saints to travel via land or the canals,[3] but not the river. It is never clear if “the destroyer” is referring to Satan or if he is a destroying angel.

Additionally, the verses make it clear that the Missouri river was unsafe for travel, as opposed to the canals, but it appears that the revelation was broadened to later include all bodies of water in general.

This idea that the waters are unsafe ties into several prophecies that John recorded in the book of Revelations which indicate that in the latter days the waters would be cursed by an angel of God (the destroyer?) John prophesies:

And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.[4]

These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.[5]

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.[6]

In addition to the waters being cursed, John makes at least one reference to water being used as a weapon, specifically by the Devil.

And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.[7]

It can certainly be argued that John’s writing were symbolic and may not have anything to do with water at all. However, we do find references in the Bible to the dangers of traveling on water. Paul describes the hardships he faced during his journeys, specifically “in perils of waters…in perils in the sea…”[8]

The apostles also faced danger on the waters when a great storm threatened their ship until the Savior commanded the waters to be still.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full…
And he [the Savior] arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.[9]

So clearly, as members of the Church understood, both during the time of Paul and of Joseph Smith, traveling upon the waters was a dangerous business.

Even today, bodies of water can pose risks if not properly respected. And the real reason missionaries are not allowed to go swimming most likely has more to do with minimizing accidents and liabilities (let’s face it, 19 and 20 year old males and the phrase “reckless” often go hand in hand), than with any control Satan might exert over the waters. The missionary prohibition on swimming would also be a way to help them avoid temptation. After all, where there are people swimming, there are girls in swimming suits, and THAT might be more trouble than a missionary can handle.

So in conclusion, we are left to believe that elder Phelps saw “the destroyer” and that the Missouri river was deemed too dangerous for travel. John did prophesy that in the latter days the waters would be cursed. But, cursed by God, through an angel, and not Satan.

Is “the destroyer” Satan? Probably not, but it can’t be ruled out. Does Satan have control of the waters? Again, it is highly unlikely and there are no prophesies or scriptures that explicitly make that claim. So, although we cannot declare this legend as entirely false, it is highly unlikely.

Interestingly, in Greek mythology the waters were controlled by the God Poseidon. Poseidon, depicted with his powerful trident (a three tipped spear) was often an antagonist in many of the ancient stories, sabotaging or attempting to kill such heroes as Odysseus and Hercules. During the growth of the Orthodox Church during the middle ages, it attempted to assimilate Christian beliefs into the pagan belief systems of the people. This often resulted in the demonizing of various pagan icons and belief structures, through art and other methods.

It wasn’t long until the popularized depiction of Satan pictured him with a trident, or pitchfork, of his own. Could the myth that Satan also controls the water be an extension of Poseidon’s imagery? You be the judge.

[1] Doctrine and Covenants, Section 61 Preface
[2] Ibid, Section 61:14-16, 18-19
[3] Doctrine and Covenants, Section 61:23
[4] KJV Bible, Revelations 16: 4
[5] Ibid, Revelation 11: 6
[6] Ibid, Revelations 8: 10-11
[7] Ibid, Revelations 12: 15
[8] Ibid, 2 Corinthians 11: 26
[9] Ibid, Mark 4: 37, 39

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