There is no evidence that Mary Stevenson’s poem “Footprints in the Sand” is based on a real event. Most scholarship holds that it’s based on a religious dream, perhaps the poet’s, or a report of such a dream.
The trope of the ecstatic dream is a common literary device to explain human contact with the divine. In this version, Jesus and the true believer share space and time, explaining why after the dream is over the dreamer sees only one set of footprints. Perhaps seers experience these visions as real events in waking life and take them on as articles of faith. Perhaps such visions are pastors’ object lessons engineered to make their point about religious faith versus church doctrine.
Two religious texts from the late 19th century – "Footsteps of Jesus" by Mary B. C. Slade (1871 hymn) and Charles Haddon Spurgeon's 1880 sermon "The Education of the Sons of God" – may have inspired poet Mary Stevenson.
Written in 1939 and granted copyright in 1984, the “Footprints in the Sand” may also be the basis for many contemporary Christian hymns, such as “One Set of Footprints,” recorded by Cristy Lane and others, as well as a staple in the greeting card industry.