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HomePersonalGospel Q&A: Why Are We Discouraged from Swimming on Sundays?

Gospel Q&A: Why Are We Discouraged from Swimming on Sundays?

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Gospel Q&A is a series from LDS Daily that strives to answer important gospel questions from readers. Today, we answer the question, “Why are we discouraged from swimming on Sundays?”

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Growing up in the Church, I often noticed a low-key sense of trepidation or warning from my Sunday School teachers about swimming on the Sabbath day. I had heard the phrase, “Satan controls the waters” as a justification for why missionaries are not permitted to go swimming (see more on those reasons here). As I’ve spoken to other members of the Church my age or older, I have noticed that this vague sense of foreboding about swimming on the Sabbath was common to many. For this reason, I am grateful to address this question—that we may shed some light on this obfuscated teaching.

In general, the Church does not provide lists of dos and don’ts for Sabbath day observance. In fact, as I searched for any such “list” recommending the “don’ts” of Sabbath day worship, this is the closest thing I’ve found. It comes from the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet.

“Sunday is not a day for shopping, recreation, or athletic events. Do not seek entertainment or make purchases on this day.”

Some old primary manuals list more options of activities that may or may not be appropriate for Sundays, but only present examples to teach the principle of Sabbath day observance to children, and swimming is never specifically mentioned.

So, where did we get this notion that swimming was specifically discouraged (for safety reasons) as a Sunday activity?

Perhaps from D&C 61. The section heading reads, “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 a daylight vision, saw the destroyer riding in power upon the face of the waters.”

More specifically, The journey of Joseph and the elders started uneventfully as they traveled by canoe up the Missouri River, but by the third day contention and hard feelings developed within the group. At a particularly difficult stretch of the river, one of the canoes reportedly hit a hazard in the water (an uprooted tree called a sawyer) and nearly capsized.”

While their journey on the Missouri River back to Kirtland had been quite dangerous, the men were spared. The Lord had told them to bear record–be missionaries–to the people on their journey. As they traveled on the water (and not on land), they couldn’t come in contact with those who needed their message on the land. D&C 61:3-4 explains:

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

Following this incident, W.W. Phelps saw, and others heard, a vision of the “Destroying Angel,” and between these two experiences, became convinced of the need to stick to the land rather than taking the enticingly short trip on the water.

Church historian and professor of religion, Dr. Gerrit Dirkmaat, expounded on this topic in the “Follow Him” podcast.

“What these guys are going to do when they get back to Kirtland is they’re going to say, ‘Listen, you just take the overland journey, okay? You don’t want to try to take the river journey. I know it looks inviting, but it is a nightmare. It is so dangerous, it’s not worth it.’ And so, apparently, God allowed them to have this experience so that they would be able to know firsthand how treacherous the river route actually is so that other people would not take that route. It is an interesting concept of where God apparently put them in a position where they would have a very negative experience so they could, with experience, testify to other people about what it is they should do….

If you read 19th-century newspapers, you will read catastrophe after catastrophe that occurs on the river. The reality is they are not easily navigable, but they are so tempting to navigate because it’s so much easier and you can carry so much more freight if you can navigate them… But it really becomes this practice to try to avoid the water route to Zion after [D&C] 61.

The Lord even gave the men a commandment to warn the Saints who would later be attempting this journey to take the land route and avoid this treacherous stretch of water.

“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” (D&C 61:18).

In verses 23-25, it is reiterated that these men should no longer travel by water and that they should pass this instruction on to others who may be coming this way.

Some members of the Church have continued to focus on the phrase, “Satan controls the water” or “Satan has dominion over the water.” But D&C 61:27 says, “Nevertheless, unto whom is given power to command the waters, unto him it is given by the Spirit to know all his ways.” Make special note that the footnote on “power” makes references to the gifts of the Holy Ghost and to the powers of the Holy Priesthood. Who has power over the water? The Lord. And those to whom He has given His power.

From all I read, it seems to me that swimming on Sunday has been made into an especially dangerous thing largely through superstition. Swimming on Sunday is no worse than shopping, participating in sports, or other recreational activities. The point is that it is discouraged because it doesn’t meet the standard of what it takes to keep the Sabbath day holy. President Nelson uses this benchmark to pursue his Sabbath day activities: “When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, ‘What sign do I want to give to God? That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear.”

Seeking to honor the Sabbath day is a worthy pursuit. Looking beyond the mark toward culturally-imposed notions is not required.

Disclaimer: While all of my answers will use scriptures and/or words of modern prophets, I do not represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t believe any of my answers are comprehensive. I’m just one person using the gospel I have been blessed with to bring hope, peace, and answers to other seekers of truth.

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Rebecca Wright
Rebecca Wright
Becca loves audiobooks, dark chocolate, singing, hiking, walking,  going out with her husband, and raising their chickens and children. She still wants to meet her hero Sheri Dew, see flowing lava and a blue whale in person, and uplift others with her words.

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