Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Section 61: Danger Upon the Waters By Michael J. Preece

Section 61: Danger Upon the Waters

On the 9th day of August 1831, Joseph and ten elders left Independence for Kirtland in a flotilla sixteen canoes, carrying themselves and their provisions. The first day they went as far as Fort Osage where they had “excellent wild turkey” for supper. Some disagreements and ill feelings arose among the traveling brethren. A couple of the elders had expected great miracles to occur in Missouri and, despite the clear statement of D&C 58:3-7 that these things would take place only over time and after much trial, they were unhappy that they had not seen a more immediate and dramatic fulfillment of God’s promises. As a result of their false expectations being disappointed, there was some murmuring and arguing among the party (see verse 20).

On August 11, the third day of the journey, the canoe in which Joseph and Sidney were riding actually hit a “sawyer,” or partially submerged tree, and was nearly overturned. The accident could easily have been fatal, for at that time the Missouri was a truly wild river without dams, locks, or levies. According to Joseph Smith, there had been other mishaps earlier that same day (HC, 1:203). That afternoon they quit the river earlier than usual and camped at McIlwaine’s bend, presently known as Miami Bend, about forty miles above Chariton, Missouri (see map of “the Missouri-Illinois area” at the back of the Doctrine and Covenants).

The discord among some of the brethren, which began during this journey back to Kirtland, was aggravated by that day’s difficulties on the river. The only account we have of the happenings at McIlwaine’s Bend is from the pen of Ezra Booth in a letter he wrote to Edward Partridge September 20, 1831. Keep in mind that those in charge of this canoe voyage, Joseph and Oliver, were respectively twenty-five and twenty-four years old. They were not experienced river guides but were placed in the position of having to direct men considerably older and more experienced than themselves.

The morning after they left Independence, the conduct of some of the elders displeased Oliver who uttered a malediction something like, “As the Lord God liveth, if you do not behave better, some accident will befall you.” In the afternoon of the third day while negotiating some treacherous waters, Joseph took command and issued some orders that were resented by the brethren in one of the canoes who refused to obey, and in so doing became tangled in some brush and almost capsized. This frightened Joseph who ordered them all ashore, while some of the brethren felt they should continue. Once on shore, at McIlwaine’s bend, tempers flared and words were exchanged. Joseph and Oliver were accused of being “highly imperious and quite dictatorial.” Joseph was also called a coward. After much emotional discussion, apologies were made, and a reconciliation of sorts was reached.

Before nightfall W. W. Phelps saw in open vision the Destroyer in his most horrible power ride upon the face of the waters. Others heard some peculiar noises but did not see the vision. The rest of that evening was spent in camp sorting out hard feelings and attempting a reconciliation between angry or offended parties. By late that evening, most of those involved had repented, apologized, and been reconciled to one another.

The next morning August 12, after prayer, Joseph received section 61, which explained in part the previous day’s events and the related vision given to Elder Phelps.

The first known text of section 61 appeared in The Evening and the Morning Star for December 1832, about sixteen months after the revelation had first been received. This was published in Missouri by W. W. Phelps, editor of the Star, who had himself received the vision that preceded section 61.

1 Behold, and hearken unto the voice of him who has all power, who is from everlasting to everlasting, even Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

verse 1 “even Alpha and Omega” See the commentary for D&C 19:1.

2 Behold, verily thus saith the Lord unto you, O ye elders of my church, who are assembled upon this spot, whose sins are now forgiven you, for I, the Lord, forgive sins, and am merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts;

verse 2 “whose sins are now forgiven you” It is likely that there had been genuine humility, remorse, and confession during the session of reconciliation the previous evening. Whether the Lord is referring to ongoing sins in the lives of these missionaries or the sins of murmuring the previous day, it is the Lord’s wont to forgive sins when there is true repentance and a determination to obey. The forgiveness of sins that occurs in our life does not occur once or even a few times. Rather, forgiveness is received hundreds or even thousands of times as we sojourn through life. See the commentary on the three parts of the ordinance of baptism, particularly the commentary on the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost in the introductory commentary for 2 Nephi 31. See also “Baptism, the Ordinance that Brings Spiritual Growth,” in volume 1, chapter 18 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine.

3 But verily I say unto you, that it is not needful for this whole company of mine elders to be moving swiftly upon the waters, whilst the inhabitants on either side are perishing in unbelief.

verse 3 The Lord suggests that opportunities to preach the gospel to people on both sides of the river may be lost as this large group of missionaries travels swiftly toward home. The Lord prefers that they take the time to proselyte as they go (see D&C 58:59; 60:14). This may seem contradictory to D&C 60:1, 5, but in these latter two verses the Lord explained that they were to hurry up and do missionary work rather than to hurry up and go home (see verse 4).

4 Nevertheless, I suffered it that ye might bear record; behold, there are many dangers upon the waters, and more especially hereafter;

verse 4 “I suffered it that ye might bear record” This phrase and this verse are somewhat enigmatic. The Lord seems to be saying, “I allowed you as a group to travel by boat, though that is not a good way to get any proselyting done as you travel, as I wanted you to experience the dangers that lie upon the waters (and Satan’s control of the waters) and warn others of those dangers (“bear record” of them).

“and more especially hereafter” The reference time frame of this phrase is uncertain here. Whatever dangers the company had already encountered would be worse at some future time. This phrase could mean that the dangers would be worse farther downstream, or they might be worse on that river in the future than they were in August 1831. It is likely that the destructive power of the waters described here will be part of the woes and destructions prophesied for the very last days (compare Moses 7:66, wherein Enoch describes the sea in the last days as becoming “troubled”).

5 For I, the Lord, have decreed in mine anger many destructions upon the waters; yea, and especially upon these waters.

verse 5 Perhaps today we tend to be a generation that is a bit more spiritually pragmatic than others have been, and the idea that Satan controls some of the elements, particularly the waters, may seem peculiar to us. There has long been in the Church a tradition that water, especially when used for recreation, may be uniquely dangerous to church missionaries, for example. Joseph Fielding Smith in referring to section 61 has taught us something about the relationship of Satan to the elements:

It may be strange to us, but it is a fact that Satan exercises dominion and has some control over the elements. . . . Paul speaks of Satan as the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). The Lord revealed to these brethren [at McIlwaine’s bend] some of the power of the adversary and how he may ride upon the storm. They were commanded to use judgment as they traveled upon these waters. . . . Moreover, notwithstanding the great power of Satan upon the waters, the Lord still held command, and he could protect his people whether on land or by water as they journeyed (Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:224-25).

In addition to Satan’s influence over the elements, Joseph Fielding Smith also suggests that the Lord’s cursing the waters may have a role in their becoming more dangerous:

In the beginning the Lord blessed the waters [Genesis 1:20] and cursed the land [Moses 4:23], but in these last days this was reversed—the land was to be blessed [D&C 57:11] and the waters cursed [Revelation 15:3-5]. A little reflection will bear witness to the truth of this declaration. In the early millennia of this earth’s history, men did not understand the composition of the soils, and how they needed building up when the crops were taken from them. The facilities at the command of the people were primitive and limited, acreage under cultivation was limited, famines were prevalent . . . Someone may rise up and say that the soil in those days was just as productive as now and this may be the case . . . It matters not what the causes were. In those early days of world history, there was neither the production nor the varieties of fruits coming from the earth, and the Lord can very properly speak of this as a curse or the lack of blessing upon the land. In those early periods we have reason to believe that torrents, floods, and the dangers upon the waters were not as great as they are today, and by no means as great as what the Lord has promised us. The early mariners among the ancients traversed seas as they knew them in that day in comparative safety. . . . Today this manner of travel in such boats would be of the most dangerous and risky nature. . . .

In regard to the Missouri-Mississippi waters, we have seen year by year great destruction upon them and coming from them. Millions upon millions of dollars, almost annually, are lost by this great stream overflowing its banks. . . . Verily the word of the Lord has been fulfilled in relation to those waters (Ibid., 1:206-7).

In section 61 the Lord does not forbid missionaries to use water as transportation, but he simply advises them to be extra careful—especially with the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

The Lord indicates that the waters of the world, particularly the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—“these waters”—will be in this final dispensation an instrument of great destruction. Presumably the Lord is referring to floods, storms, and warfare fought on the high seas.

6 Nevertheless, all flesh is in mine hand, and he that is faithful among you shall not perish by the waters.

verse 6 Despite some popular belief to the contrary, section 61 does not prohibit travel by water, or even swimming, for missionaries (see commentary on verses 24-26). Even in those future times when the curse upon the waters will become more evident than it is now, the “upright in heart” will still be able to travel to Zion safely by water (verses 16, 22). It is the unfaithful and the rebellious, like the rebellious elders on the previous day, who need to fear the power of Satan over the waters, for by their unfaithfulness, they render themselves susceptible to that power. Notice that when the elders at McIlwaine’s Bend repented, they were allowed to continue their journey even upon the waters of the Missouri river (see verse 22).

7 Wherefore, it is expedient that my servant Sidney Gilbert and my servant William W. Phelps be in haste upon their errand and mission.

verse 7 “my servant Sidney Gilbert and my servant William W. Phelps” These men had been commanded to return to Kirtland to get their families and then travel to Cincinnati to purchase a printing press. They would then bring their families and the printing press to Independence. William W. Phelps was to be the printer for the Church, and Sidney Gilbert had been appointed purchasing agent.

8 Nevertheless, I would not suffer that ye should part until you were chastened for all your sins, that you might be one, that you might not perish in wickedness;

verse 8 The Lord wanted the traveling group of returning missionaries to remain together in one group so that they might benefit from the experiences they had on the river and at McIlwaine’s Bend. Unpleasant as the experience must have seemed initially, it is notable that the Lord knew that the entire experience, including the humble confessions and reconciliations, would produce needed repentance and growth in the elders in the group.

9 But now, verily I say, it behooveth me that ye should part. Wherefore let my servants Sidney Gilbert and William W. Phelps take their former company, and let them take their journey in haste that they may fill their mission, and through faith they shall overcome;

verse 9 Now that they had benefited from their experience at McIlwaine’s Bend, the Lord commanded Sidney Gilbert and William W. Phelps to go on ahead of the rest of the group that they might complete their unique assignment (see verse 7).

10 And inasmuch as they are faithful they shall be preserved, and I, the Lord, will be with them.

11 And let the residue take that which is needful for clothing.

12 Let my servant Sidney Gilbert take that which is not needful with him, as you shall agree.

verses 11-12 The group is commanded to simplify their luggage so that they carry with them only that clothing which is needful and thus travel “lighter.” The rest of the group’s belongings will be carried back to Kirtland by Sidney Gilbert (and William W. Phelps).

13 And now, behold, for your good I gave unto you a commandment concerning these things; and I, the Lord, will reason with you as with men in days of old.

verse 13 “for your good I gave unto you a commandment” The Lord did command these elders to depart promptly from Independence by boat (see D&C 60:5).

“and I the Lord, will reason with you as with men in days of old” Now, let me explain why I gave you the commandment to travel by water.

14 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.

verse 14 “I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters” When God first created the world, both the land and the waters were blessed (Genesis 1:10-12, 20-22). Then when Adam and Eve transgressed in the Garden of Eden, the land was cursed for their sakes, but the waters were not: “In the beginning God cursed the earth; but did he curse all things pertaining to it? No, he did not curse the water, but he blessed it” (Brigham Young in JD, 7:162).

From the beginning, water was ordained to be a cleansing and a purifying element. When the earth became corrupted in the days of Noah, God purified it by bringing the waters upon it. Likewise, today sinful men and women may also be purified through baptism by immersion in water. One of Christ’s most important symbolic names is the Living Water or the Water of Life.

“in the last days” This phrase is probably meant to tell us when the curse would take effect rather than when John pronounced it. In other words, John, either in the meridian of time or sometime since, pronounced a curse that would come upon the waters sometimes in the last days. The full realization of that curse was still future in Joseph’s day (compare verse 15).

“by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters” The reference here may be to passages in the book of Revelation written by the apostle John. There are a couple of passages in Revelation that might be interpreted as the waters’ being cursed in the latter days (see Revelation 8:8-11; 16:2-6). Perhaps also this phrase refers to an event in the ministry of John not otherwise recorded in scripture.

15 Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters.

16 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.

verses 15-16 “the days will come” “in days to come” The phrase “the last days” can be ambiguous, referring to events anytime between the restoration of the gospel in 1830 and the moment of the second coming of Christ. This language in verses 15-16 makes it clear that “the last days” as used in verse 14 refers to a time still in the future.

17 And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof.

verse 17 “I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land” “in the last days have I blessed it” When Adam fell, the ground or the earth was cursed for his sake (see Genesis 3:17). This curse will be removed from the whole earth only when the Savior comes to establish his millennial reign upon it and renew it to “paradisiacal glory” (Articles of Faith 1:10). According to this verse, however, God has already removed the curse upon the land and blessed it in order that the saints might establish Zion and enjoy its fruits. The land is no longer cursed and there is no more impediment for those saints who will establish Zion, whether in their own hearts, in their own homes, wards, stakes, or eventually in Jackson County, Missouri.

18 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;

verse 18 “you shall forewarn your brethren concerning these waters . . . lest their faith fail and they are caught in snares” Apparently, the power of Satan over those traveling upon the waters is proportionate to their lack of faith. Since some of the Missouri elders had murmured and been rebellious the day before, the power of Satan over them had increased, and they had experienced increased difficulties on their journey. W. W. Phelps was allowed to see the source of their troubles and the power Satan had been given to destroy the wicked or faithless who travel upon the waters. Future saints traveling to Zion needed to know that should they prove unfaithful, particularly as they traveled upon untamed waters, they would find themselves vulnerable to the power of the destroyer.

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

verse 19 “I, the Lord, have decreed . . . and I revoke not the decree” The curse pronounced by the mouth of John is still in effect and will be more fully realized at a future time. Satan has been given power over the waters, and that curse will not be revoked until the Savior comes.

20 I, the Lord, was angry with you yesterday, but today mine anger is turned away.

verse 20 During the three days upon the river some disagreements and ill feelings had developed among the brethren and explanations and reconciliations had become necessary. The greater part of the night at McIlwaine’s Bend was devoted to these matters. The brethren had become reconciled to each other. Those whose special callings dictated more urgency (see verse 21) started overland the next morning will all of the group’s non-essential luggage. The rest of the company continued the journey via the river. With the repentance of the elders and their reconciliation to one another, the danger for them in traveling upon the waters was greatly lessened, so that they might, with continued faithfulness, resume their travels, even by water (see verse 6).

21 Wherefore, let those concerning whom I have spoken, that should take their journey in haste—again I say unto you, let them take their journey in haste.

verse 21 “let them take their journey in haste” By the time they arrived at McIlwaine’s bend, the brethren had discovered that progress by canoe was slow. Hence it became necessary for those who had been appointed with a special responsibility to purchase a printing press, Sidney Gilbert and W. W. Phelps, to find a more expeditious means of travel than by canoe. Also the group consisting of Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon were given special travel instructions by revelation. On the morning of August 12, those with special instructions started overland for St. Louis and Kirtland, and the rest of the company (Samuel Smith, Reynolds Cahoon, Ezra Booth, Frederick G. Williams, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Joseph Coe) continued the journey via the river preaching the restored gospel as they went.

22 And it mattereth not unto me, after a little, if it so be that they fill their mission, whether they go by water or by land; let this be as it is made known unto them according to their judgments hereafter.

verse 22 This verse seems to apply to those elders who continued on by canoe toward St. Louis. They were to find their own way, either by water or by land, so long as their means of travel allowed them the opportunity to preach the gospel and fulfill their mission as they went. The Lord did not care whether they traveled by land or by water.

23 And now, concerning my servants, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, let them come not again upon the waters, save it be upon the canal, while journeying unto their homes; or in other words they shall not come upon the waters to journey, save upon the canal.

verse 23 The Lord wishes the group of Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery to hurry back to Kirtland. They were not to travel again by water except when they reached “the canal” which is the Ohio Canal which ran from Lake Erie to Columbus, Ohio. This apparently was an expeditious way to travel in those days.

24 Behold, I, the Lord, have appointed a way for the journeying of my saints; and behold, this is the way—that after they leave the canal they shall journey by land, inasmuch as they are commanded to journey and go up unto the land of Zion;

25 And they shall do like unto the children of Israel, pitching their tents by the way.

26 And, behold, this commandment you shall give unto all your brethren.

verses 24-26 There is little indication in the historical record that the saints understood section 61 as a blanket prohibition against water travel, though they were clearly advised to travel up to Zion by land (see Phelps, “Way of Journeying for the Saints,” The Evening and the Morning Star, December 1832, 5). For example, Parley P. Pratt and his wife traveled to Missouri by water in the summer of 1832 (see Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 64-65). Rather, section 61 was seen as an expression of the Lord’s preference that those called to settle permanently in Zion travel by land, perhaps because of the physical dangers of going by boat, but also because of the missionary opportunities that would otherwise be lost.

27 Nevertheless, unto whom is given power to command the waters, unto him it is given by the Spirit to know all his ways;

verse 27 This verse likely refers specifically to Joseph Smith, who holds all the keys and powers of the priesthood (compare Moses 1:25). See also the following verse.

28 Wherefore, let him do as the Spirit of the living God commandeth him, whether upon the land or upon the waters, as it remaineth with me to do hereafter.

29 And unto you is given the course for the saints, or the way for the saints of the camp of the Lord, to journey.

30 And again, verily I say unto you, my servants, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Oliver Cowdery, shall not open their mouths in the congregations of the wicked until they arrive at Cincinnati;

verse 30 There was sufficient urgency in the mind of the Lord for Joseph Smith and his party to hasten back to Kirtland, that the group is reminded not to stop to preach the gospel to nonmembers in their congregations on the way home, at least until they arrived in Cincinnati.

31 And in that place they shall lift up their voices unto God against that people, yea, unto him whose anger is kindled against their wickedness, a people who are well-nigh ripened for destruction.

verse 31 At that time Cincinnati was only a frontier village like Independence and, like other western towns, it was the gathering place of many who had been forced to flee from the larger cities because of violations of the law. In all the border towns in that day wickedness and lawlessness prevailed.

32 And from thence let them journey for the congregations of their brethren, for their labors even now are wanted more abundantly among them than among the congregations of the wicked.

verse 32 “from thence let them journey for the congregations of their brethren” After preaching in Cincinnati, Joseph, Oliver, and Sidney were to head directly back to Kirtland—back to the congregations of the saints—where their labors were more urgently required than they were on route. The leadership of Joseph and Sidney had indeed been sorely missed and was urgently needed. John Whitmer recorded that while Joseph and the other leaders were in Missouri, a number of the saints had apostatized in Kirtland, though of these many were reclaimed when their leaders returned (Early Latter Day Saint History, 80).

33 And now, concerning the residue, let them journey and declare the word among the congregations of the wicked, inasmuch as it is given;

verse 33 The Lord again commands those who continued on down the river toward St. Louis after Joseph Smith and others separated from them (Samuel Smith, Reynolds Cahoon, Ezra Booth, Frederick G. Williams, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Joseph Coe). They are commanded to take every opportunity to preach to nonmembers on their way back to Kirtland.

34 And inasmuch as they do this they shall rid their garments, and they shall be spotless before me.

verse 34 “they shall rid their garments” This phrase means to rid them of blame for the sins of people they could have warned and converted, but did not. Notice that whenever someone would have been converted if only some missionary had been obedient, the responsibility for their subsequent sins and ignorance is not charged to themselves alone but is shared with the disobedient missionary!

35 And let them journey together, or two by two, as seemeth them good, only let my servant Reynolds Cahoon, and my servant Samuel H. Smith, with whom I am well pleased, be not separated until they return to their homes, and this for a wise purpose in me.

36 And now, verily I say unto you, and what I say unto one I say unto all, be of good cheer, little children; for I am in your midst, and I have not forsaken you;

37 And inasmuch as you have humbled yourselves before me, the blessings of the kingdom are yours.

38 Gird up your loins and be watchful and be sober, looking forth for the coming of the Son of Man, for he cometh in an hour you think not.

verse 38 “he cometh in an hour you think not” While we are not told the time of the Lord’s second coming, we do know that it will be at a moment when he is not expected. This phrase has the same meaning as the phrase “I come quickly,” found in several places in scripture.

39 Pray always that you enter not into temptation, that you may abide the day of his coming, whether in life or in death. Even so. Amen.

verse 39 “whether in life or in death” Whether we are alive at the Savior’s coming or have died prior to that event, we will still want to be able to “abide the day of his coming.” For the living this means being allowed to stay upon the earth after his coming and to participate in his millennial kingdom. For the dead it means being resurrected with the other righteous dead on that day, in the morning of the first resurrection, also to participate in his millennial kingdom.

The arrangement whereby Joseph, Oliver, and Sidney were to leave the river and travel home by stage was regarded by some of the brethren as overly expensive, and the suggestion was even made that the revelation may have come about because of Joseph’s fear of the river. “Why do we have to beg our passage on foot while they get to travel by stage?” They even took notice when Joseph and the others failed to obey the commandment given in verse 30 to stop and preach in Cincinnati.

- Michael J. Preece