WHY are full-time missionaries in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints NOT allowed to go swimming?
The current (2017) Handbook for missionaries states:
"Never go swimming or take part in water sports."
The myth of this taboo is that it is because "Satan has power over the water."
I asked an 18-year-old young man in the church, who was soon leaving on a full-time mission, about the "why" and the Satan reason is what he had been taught.
Who is teaching young people this incorrect doctrinal reason? Seminary teachers? Sunday School instructors? Both?
While it is true that ALL missionaries cannot go swimming, I have different reasons why and I believe they hold up far better than the Satan reason.
The Satan reason is based on Doctrine and Covenants section 61, particularly verse 19, where Satan (the Destroyer) is seen in a vision riding with power upon the waters.
(Joseph Smith and 10 Elders of the church were traveling in canoes down the Missouri River when this revelation was received.)
This D&C section also addresses missionaries for the church, that they are to go two-by-two and prepare for the Second Coming.
Nowhere does it say that missionaries should not go swimming.
In fact, verse 6 states that "all flesh is in mine hand, and he that is faithful among you shall not perish by the waters."
If anything, verse 5 states that the Lord has decreed in anger many destructions upon the waters -- especially "these waters" (the Missouri River).
Verse 16 is the key verse in Section 61: "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."
That's clearly a prophecy for the future.
--Anyway, I have a copy of the official "Missionary's Hand Book" of the LDS Church from 1946, by President Heber J. Grant.
On page 27 it states, "Mixed swimming should be avoided."
That's all it states about swimming. Swimming was allowed by missionaries in 1946, just not with females.
The prohibition against missionaries and swimming came about later, probably in the late 1950s.
In some missions today, like the Hawaii Mission, mission rules clearly state that the mission's boundaries end where the sand of a beach begins.
However, in other missions, like Oregon, I've met full-time missionaries proselyting at the beach and so all mission rules regarding that must not be the same.
So, it is policy, not doctrine why full-time missionaries are not supposed to go swimming.
-Notwithstanding the 1946 Missionary Handbook also quoted the late President Joseph F. Smith (who died in 1918): "It is not a good thing, neither is it at all wise, for our elders to go out on excursions on dangerous lakes, or streams, or bodies of water, just for fun. They had better stay away. The Lord will protect them in the discharge of their duties."
Thus, missionaries by an early 20th Century admonition, were advised to not run rivers or take any pleasure boating excursions on any "dangerous" bodies of water.
I believe the true reasons why missionaries can't swim are two-fold:
1. A rise in immodest bathing suits, starting in the 1950s. (So, it may really be about "Satan having power over the swimsuit designers!")
If missionaries can't swim, they generally won't go near the beaches and see the immodest sunbathers.
2. An increase in missionaries drownings -- particularly in foreign lands. Elders preach in far away nations and on time off, may spot a neat little island at the edge of the ocean, and think they should try and swim there.
Not knowing local dangers or currents, a significant number of missionaries have drowned in such situations of ignorance.
(I've attended several funerals over the years of Elders from Utah who drowned in foreign lands in accidents, caused by ignorance of local water dangers.)
If Satan truly had all power over water, he could control our bodies (mostly water), or drown a new member during a baptism.
Now Satan does (or will have in the Last Days) have some special power over rivers and oceans, as D&C 61 states.
However, swimming pools are safe (though immodest apparel can be there too), but again a blanket rule against ALL swimming was applied some 60 years ago to all missionaries, certainly because of immodest apparel concerns and accident dangers more than anything about Satan's power over water.
In conclusion: The context of D&C 61 focuses on TRAVEL upon the water, by boat (not swimming). So, until there's a travel advisory for missionaries, or church members, about boat travel, I'm not buying the "Satan has power over the water" myth as to why missionaries can't swim.
Some Church members need to question such prevalent myths, rather than instantly buy into them, or perpetuate them further.
-Pure obedience-wise, ALL full-time missionaries may NOT go swimming because that's been the inspired rule for many decades.