Hey everyone, today we’re going to talk about Joseph Smith’s marriage to his first plural wife, Fanny Alger. Plural marriage has not been practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for well over 100 years now, but people still understandably have lots of questions about this subject. We’ve published a bunch of videos on our channel that dive into different aspects of plural marriage so feel free to check those out. But one of the major challenges with this topic in general and especially in the case of Fanny Alger is that the historical record simply does not give us very many pieces of the puzzle.
None of the sources that have been discovered thus far that tell us about the relationship between Joseph and Fanny are first-hand sources. And most of the information we have about this relationship was given more than 30 years after the events being described. And as you’d expect, some sources contradict each other. So what we’re essentially doing is trying to fit together the edge pieces of a puzzle and then guessing what the middle looks like. Understand that almost all of the dates and details we’re going to talk about today are debated. That said, let’s dive into this and see what we can figure out:
Mary Elizabeth Rollins reported that Joseph was first instructed by an angel in 1834 to restore the Old Testament practice of plural marriage, though there is evidence that Joseph was aware of the future practice as early as 1831. Fanny Alger was born in September 1816, and would later live with and do housework for Joseph and Emma Smith in Kirtland, Ohio — probably between 1834 and 1836 (but again, dates are debatable and some argue for an earlier date). The date of Joseph and Fanny’s marriage is also debated. “Eight of the twenty documents discussing the marriage provide dating information, with four indicating it occurred as early as 1833 and four supporting a marriage two years later. Despite the inconsistencies, an 1835 or even 1836 date seems most likely.” Fanny would have been 18 or 19 years old at the time.
Joseph did not directly approach Fanny with a proposal. Instead, he used Levi Hancock (Fanny’s uncle) as an intermediary. Levi proposed the idea to Fanny’s parents, and then to Fanny. Everyone was cool with it, and Levi performed the marriage ceremony. Now, while Fanny and her family consented to the marriage, Emma, Joseph Smith’s wife, did not. She actually had no idea about the relationship. William McLellin reported in 1872 long after leaving the Church, “that one night she [Emma] missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!!”
Now, what exactly was this “transaction” that Emma witnessed? We don’t know for sure. Some people think the statement implies sexual relations, but it could have been any sign of affection, or it could have even been the marriage ceremony itself. In fact, McLellin apparently retold this story a few years later to J. H. Beadle. Beadle said,
“[McLellin] also informed me of the spot where the first well-authenticated case of polygamy took place in which Joseph Smith was ‘sealed’ to the hired girl. The ‘sealing’ took place in a barn on the haymow, and was witnessed by Mrs. Smith through a crack in the door!”
But no matter what Emma saw through the barn door crack, having been left in the dark, she was justifiably upset. Joseph, Fanny, the Alger family, the Hancock family, and others believed this to be a legitimate marriage. Emma did not. She thought it was infidelity, plain and simple. Joseph called on Oliver Cowdery to help fix things between him and Emma, but Oliver sided with Emma. He later referred to the whole situation as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.”
After the relationship was discovered, Emma promptly kicked Fanny out of the house. One second-hand late source implies that Fanny was kicked out because Emma discovered that Fanny was pregnant. However, not a single other source corroborates this account, and not a single child from Fanny has been positively identified as Joseph’s. Personally, I don’t think she was pregnant, but there’s admittedly not much information to go off of. Perhaps she was pregnant and the baby didn’t survive to full term. We just don’t know. We don’t know how much time, if any, elapsed between the marriage ceremony and Emma’s discovery. We don’t know if Joseph’s relationship with Fanny was sexual or not.
In any case, after leaving the Smith home, Fanny stayed temporarily with the family of Chauncy and Eliza Webb. The Webbs also believed the union was a legitimate marriage, but the question of whether or not it was an eternal marriage, a “sealing” as we Latter-day Saints put it, is still open for debate. Joseph didn’t receive the priesthood authority to perform eternal “sealings” until 1836. Fanny and Joseph’s marriage could have occurred after that time. It could have been a sealing, but it’s probably more likely that this was just a for-time-only plural marriage performed by priesthood authority. Eliza Webb later wrote, “I do not know that the ‘sealing’ commenced in Kirtland but I am perfectly satisfied that something similar commenced…”
It’s hard to speak confidently about pretty much any aspect of this relationship because the sources are so scant, late, and contradictory. In these situations, what generally happens is that those who believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God tend to give Joseph the benefit of the doubt and interpret the evidence more favorably for him, while those who believe Joseph was a fraud do the opposite.
If you want to dive deeper into this topic and come to your own conclusions, please check out the work of plural marriage expert Brian Hales. He’s got tons of information on his website. But also consider checking out his 3-volume book series on the subject, where he really gets into the source material and walks you through how historians put these pieces together. While you’re at it, check out the resources in the YouTube description of this video, watch some of the other videos on our channel we’ve done on plural marriage, and have a great day!
- An excellent summary of this topic from JosephSmithsPolygamy.com: https://bit.ly/3n1m9A4
- Common questions about Joseph and Fanny’s relationship (JosephSmithsPolygamy.com): https://bit.ly/3yKsiTo
- Playlist on our channel with a bunch of videos about plural marriage: https://bit.ly/3kRmP8x
- “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Church’s website: https://bit.ly/2MITdwO
- “Historical Accounts Referring to the Relationship of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger,” by Brian Hales: https://bit.ly/2WLg3cE
- “A Response to Grant Palmer’s ‘Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo’,” by Brian Hales & Gregory Smith (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/2WJc6Vj
- “The Prophet Joseph Smith and His Plural Wives,” Richard L. Anderson & Scott Faulring (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/35kg6wN
- “Did Fanny Alger have a child by Joseph Smith?”: https://bit.ly/2WMTjce
- “Fanny Alger” topic from the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3jFCbh5
- “Oliver Cowdery, Letter to Warren A. Cowdery (Oliver’s brother), January 21, 1838,” via JosephSmithsPolygamy.com: https://bit.ly/3zJvOip
- YouTube interview with Brian Hales about Fanny Alger (Gospel Tangents): (Part 4) https://bit.ly/3DObDlC / (Part 5) https://bit.ly/2WRw14B
- “Fanny Alger was Joseph Smith’s first plural wife,” by FAIR: https://bit.ly/3zL0qzR
- “Question: Was Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger an affair, or was it his first plural marriage?” by FAIR: https://bit.ly/2WS3mft
- I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Brian Hales 3-volume work: “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy”.
- See also, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding,” by Brian and Laura Hales.