In the Spring of 1820, the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith had his first miraculous vision. His brother, William, later said, “We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a wonderful way.”
As time has passed, many of the more baseless rumors about Joseph have faded into the background, and for good reason. But every once in a while, someone will dig up an old claim, dust it off, and use it once again to challenge the faith of believers — oftentimes leaving out key context and information. For example, I recently ran across a series of posts on social media about a cluster of affidavits asserting that on a river near Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith attempted to walk on water but was foiled when some mischievous skeptics secretly removed one of the underwater planks of wood he had been walking on. Did this really happen? Let’s dive in.
Alright, so the affidavits in question come from Arthur Deming’s 1885 anti-Latter-day Saint book, Naked Truths of Mormonism. The book contains 6 affidavits from these people, who are apparently remembering in 1885 an event that occurred more than half a century earlier. Some accounts are apparently first-hand, half are at least second-hand, and all of them, again, are very late. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the influencer posting about these affidavits does not tell you that while these affidavits more or less predictably agree with each other, there are countless other versions of the water-walking story that do not.
The earliest available printed version of this story appeared in 1834. In this account, which you can pause and read, it’s not Joseph Smith who attempts to walk on water, but rather just a generic “Mormon preacher.” In this version, the stunt takes place in a swampy pond in New York; some people discover the wooden planks, and they cut them up in the deeper part of the pond. Later, the preacher falls into the water and apparently dies. The story was quickly re-printed and denounced by the Church’s newspaper, The Evening and Morning Star, and later in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate.
By 1838 at the latest, the story had become connected with Joseph Smith. In this 1838 account, it’s not crossing a pond on planks; it’s crossing a river on ropes. The Times and Seasons again addressed the spreading rumors in 1844, saying, “… every story has been put into requisition to blast our fame, from the old fabrication of ‘walk on the water’ down to ‘the murder of ex-Governor Boggs.’ The journals have teemed with this filthy trash….”
Nonetheless, the rumors continued and started showing up more in published records in the later 1800s. Some people claim it happened in New York; others, Pennsylvania; others, Ohio; others, Illinois. One account says Missouri and another one says Canada. There’s even one version where he attempts to walk on water on the Great Salt Lake. Pretty much wherever Joseph went (and in at least one place he never went), these stories started popping up.
Similar to some of the affidavits we were looking at, eventually, you have people claiming to have actually been there when it happened or claiming to know some of the people who sabotaged the pretended miracle. In these accounts, it happened in New York, and it’s suggested that a Mr. Collington removed the plank. In this account, it happened in Ohio, and the author’s grandmother’s brother, Robert, helped remove the plank. In the Missouri account, it was “Tom and Uncle Billie” who removed the plank. In this account, it happened in Nauvoo, Illinois, and a lady reports that her two younger brothers removed the plank, even though she was born in 1843, the year before Joseph was killed. In my favorite Nauvoo account, it happened on the Mississippi River, and the saboteur was Dan Rice, who had thought of the idea while at lunch with none other than Abraham Lincoln.
Researcher Stanley Thayne interviewed various individuals in Pennsylvania about this legend. He noted that most accounts match the usual print story about town boys removing an underwater plank, but he also found accounts where Joseph is walking on an underwater rope bridge that is sabotaged by men underwater, breathing through reeds; other accounts say it was a ladder that broke; one account reports that men with breathing tubes were holding Joseph up on an underwater board and were discovered when they came up for air, and one account asserts that Joseph tried to fool people by crossing a river on chicken wire.
You guys get the point. These are just legends — tall tales about Joseph Smith. Methodist preacher John Goodell wrote that “There is little to indicate that the story in any of its versions is true … the story has too much of the character of that brand of Yankee humor in which the know-it-all outsider is done in by the supposedly inferior locals.”
Now, if there is even a kernel of truth in these stories, it may be based on the events of late June 1830, during the early days of the Church. The brethren had built a dam at the outlet of Pickerel Pond on Joseph Knight’s farm so as to create a space to perform baptisms the following day. Unfortunately, in the night, a mob dismantled the dam, which was rebuilt, and the baptisms performed. Thayne noted some potentially significant parallels: “Joseph was seen building a structure in the water, men came at night and destroyed his structure (which may have involved removing boards, or planks), and several townspeople gathered the next day to see Joseph’s purposes foiled, saw him in the water (performing baptisms).” It could be that these early events were embellished over time, but there’s really no way to know for certain.
Ultimately, “The water-walking legend reveals nineteenth-century fears and anxieties about religious change and distrust of religious innovators. … Thus, legend-telling has been a sort of ‘self-therapy’ for those who have been confronted with the type of ambiguity modern prophets represent.” Even the renowned critic of our faith, Fawn Brodie, while suggesting that the story is somehow “symbolic” of Joseph’s fraudulence, admitted that in the end, it’s “apocryphal” and “Baseless.” Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Walking on Water: Nineteenth-Century Prophets and a Legend of Religious Imposture,” by Stanley J. Thayne, in Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Spring 2010), pg. 160-204: http://bit.ly/3KGPziI
- “Walking-on-Water Stories and Other Susquehanna River Folk Tales about Joseph Smith,” by J. Taylor Hollist: https://bit.ly/3Z7Jssa