Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Plural wives/Fanny Alger as Joseph Smith's first plural wife

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Fanny Alger was Joseph Smith's first plural wife

Summary: With a lone exception, there is no account after Joseph’s death of Emma admitting Joseph’s plural marriages in any source. The reported exception is recorded in a newspaper article and two letters written by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin. The former apostle claimed to have visited Emma in 1847 and to have discussed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger. McLellin also reported a tale he had heard about Joseph and Fanny Alger in which they were allegedly observed by Emma together in the barn.

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Question: What do we know about Joseph Smith's first plural wife Fanny Alger?

There are no first-hand accounts of the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger

One of the wives about whom we know relatively little is Fanny Alger, Joseph's first plural wife, whom he came to know in early 1833 when she stayed at the Smith home as a house-assistant of sorts to Emma (such work was common for young women at the time). There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny's family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them recorded many years after the events.

Unfortunately, this lack of reliable and extensive historical detail leaves much room for critics to claim that Joseph Smith had an affair with Fanny and then later invented plural marriage as way to justify his actions. The problem is we don't know the details of the relationship or exactly of what it consisted, and so are left to assume that Joseph acted honorably (as believers) or dishonorably (as critics).

There is some historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored, so it is perfectly legitimate to argue that Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger was such a case. Mosiah Hancock (a Mormon) reported a wedding ceremony; and apostate Mormons Ann Eliza Webb Young and her father Chauncery both referred to Fanny's relationship as a "sealing." Ann Eliza also reported that Fanny's family was very proud of Fanny's relationship with Joseph, which makes little sense if it was simply a tawdry affair. Those closest to them saw the marriage as exactly that—a marriage.


Question: Did Joseph Smith marry Fanny Alger as his first plural wife in 1833?

Joseph Smith met Fanny Alger in 1833 when she was a house-assistant to Emma

Joseph Smith came to know Fanny Alger in early 1833 when she stayed at the Smith home as a house-assistant to Emma. Neither Joseph nor Fanny ever left any first-hand accounts of their relationship. There are no second-hand accounts from Emma or Fanny's family. All that we do have is third hand accounts from people who did not directly observe the events associated with this first plural marriage, and most of them recorded many years after the events.

Joseph said that the "ancient order of plural marriage" was to again be practiced at the time that Fanny was living with his family

Benjamin F. Johnson stated that in 1835 he had "learned from my sister’s husband, Lyman R. Sherman, who was close to the Prophet, and received it from him, 'that the ancient order of Plural Marriage was again to be practiced by the Church.' This, at the time did not impress my mind deeply, although there lived then with his family (the Prophet’s) a neighbor’s daughter, Fannie Alger, a very nice and comely young woman about my own age, toward whom not only myself, but every one, seemed partial, for the amiability for her character; and it was whispered even then that Joseph loved her."[1]

Joseph asked the brother-in-law of Fanny's father to make the request of Fanny's father, after which a marriage ceremony was performed

Mosiah Hancock discusses the manner in which the proposal was extended to Fanny, and states that a marriage ceremony was performed. Joseph asked Levi Hancock, the brother-in-law of Samuel Alger, Fanny’s father, to request Fanny as his plural wife:

Samuel, the Prophet Joseph loves your daughter Fanny and wishes her for a wife. What say you?” Uncle Sam says, “Go and talk to the old woman [Fanny’s mother] about it. Twill be as she says.” Father goes to his sister and said, “Clarissy, Brother Joseph the Prophet of the most high God loves Fanny and wishes her for a wife. What say you?” Said she, “Go and talk to Fanny. It will be all right with me.” Father goes to Fanny and said, “Fanny, Brother Joseph the Prophet loves you and wishes you for a wife. Will you be his wife?” “I will Levi,” said she. Father takes Fanny to Joseph and said, “Brother Joseph I have been successful in my mission.” Father gave her to Joseph, repeating the ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.[2]


Question: How could Joseph and Fanny have been married in 1831 if the sealing power had not yet been restored?

There is historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored

There is historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored. Mosiah Hancock (a Mormon) reported a wedding ceremony in Kirtland, Ohio in 1833.

Apostate Mormons Ann Eliza Webb Young and her father Chauncery both referred to Fanny's relationship as a "sealing." Ann Eliza also reported that Fanny's family was very proud of Fanny's relationship with Joseph, which makes little sense if it was simply a tawdry affair. Those closest to them saw the marriage as exactly that—a marriage.

Joseph and Fanny's marriage was a plural marriage, not an eternal marriage

Some have wondered how the first plural marriages (such as the Alger marriage) could have occurred before the 1836 restoration of the sealing keys in the Kirtland temple (see DC 110:). This confusion occurs because we tend to conflate several ideas. They were not all initially wrapped together in one doctrine:

  1. plural marriage - the idea that one could be married (in mortality) to more than one woman: being taught by 1831.
  2. eternal marriage - the idea that a man and spouse could be sealed and remain together beyond the grave: being taught by 1835.
  3. "celestial" marriage - the combination of the above two ideas, in which all marriages—plural and monogamous—could last beyond the grave via the sealing powers: implemented by 1840-41.

Thus, the marriage to Fanny would have occurred under the understanding #1 above. The concept of sealing beyond the grave came later. Therefore, the marriage of Joseph and Fanny would have been a plural marriage, but it would not have been a marriage for eternity.


Question: Did some of Joseph Smith's associates believe that he had an affair with Fanny Alger?

Oliver Cowdery perceived the relationship between Joseph and Fanny as a "dirty, nasty, filthy affair"

Some of Joseph's associates, most notably Oliver Cowdery, perceived Joseph's association with Fanny as an affair rather than a plural marriage. Oliver, in a letter to his brother Warren, asserted that "in every instance I did not fail to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger's was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself."[3]

Gary J. Bergera, an advocate of the "affair" theory, wrote:

I do not believe that Fanny Alger, whom [Todd] Compton counts as Smith’s first plural wife, satisfies the criteria to be considered a “wife.” Briefly, the sources for such a “marriage” are all retrospective and presented from a point of view favoring plural marriage, rather than, say, an extramarital liaison…Smith’s doctrine of eternal marriage was not formulated until after 1839–40. [4]

There are several problems with this analysis. While it is true that sources on Fanny are all retrospective, the same is true of many early plural marriages. Fanny's marriage has more evidence than some. Bergera says that all the sources about Fanny's marriage come "from a point of view favoring plural marriage," but this claim is clearly false.

Even hostile accounts of the relationship between Joseph and Fanny report a marriage or sealing

For example, Fanny's marriage was mentioned by Ann Eliza Webb Young, a later wife of Brigham Young's who divorced him, published an anti-Mormon book, and spent much of her time giving anti-Mormon, anti-polygamy lectures. Fanny stayed with Ann Eliza's family after leaving Joseph and Emma's house, and both Ann Eliza and her father Chauncey Webb [5] refer to Joseph's relationship to Fanny as a "sealing." [6] Eliza also noted that the Alger family "considered it the highest honor to have their daughter adopted into the prophet's family, and her mother has always claimed that she [Fanny] was sealed to Joseph at that time." [7] This would be a strange attitude to take if their relationship was a mere affair. And, the hostile Webbs had no reason to invent a "sealing" idea if they could have made Fanny into a mere case of adultery.


Question: Did Emma Smith discover her husband Joseph with Fanny Alger in a barn?

William McLellin claimed to have heard a story that Fanny and Joseph were in the barn and Emma had observed them

In 1872, William McLellin wrote a letter to Emma and Joseph's son, Joseph Smith III:

Now Joseph I will relate to you some history, and refer you to your own dear Mother for the truth. You will probably remember that I visited your Mother and family in 1847, and held a lengthy conversation with her, retired in the Mansion House in Nauvoo. I did not ask her to tell, but I told her some stories I had heard. And she told me whether I was properly informed. Dr. F. G. Williams practiced with me in Clay Co. Mo. during the latter part of 1838. And he told me that at your birth your father committed an act with a Miss Hill [sic]—a hired girl. Emma saw him, and spoke to him. He desisted, but Mrs. Smith refused to be satisfied. He called in Dr. Williams, O. Cowdery, and S. Rigdon to reconcile Emma. But she told them just as the circumstances took place. He found he was caught. He confessed humbly, and begged forgiveness. Emma and all forgave him. She told me this story was true!! Again I told her I heard that one night she 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!!! She told me this story too was verily true. [8]

Ann Eliza Webb, who was born 11 years after Joseph's marriage to Fanny, claimed that Emma threw Fanny out of the house

Ann Eliza Webb, who was born in 1844, was not even alive at the time of these events, could only only comment based upon what her father told her about Joseph and Fanny. Ann apostatized from the Church and wrote an "expose" called Wife No. 19, or The story of a Life in Bondage. She described Fanny as follows:

Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, a very pretty, pleasing young girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her; no mother could be more devoted, and their affection for each other was a constant object of remark, so absorbing and genuine did it seem. Consequently is was with a shocked surprise that people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night.[9]


Question: Did Fanny Alger have a child by Joseph Smith?

A suggestion that Fanny was pregnant by Joseph surfaced in an 1886 anti-Mormon book with a claim that Emma "drove" Fanny out of the house

The first mention of a pregnancy for Fanny is in an 1886 anti-Mormon work, citing Chauncey Webb, with whom Fanny reportedly lived after leaving the Smith home.[10] Webb claimed that Emma "drove" Fanny from the house because she "was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet." If Fanny was pregnant, it is curious that no one else remarked upon it at the time, though it is possible that the close quarters of a nineteenth-century household provided Emma with clues. If Fanny was pregnant by Joseph, the child never went to term, died young, or was raised under a different name.

Fawn Brodie claimed that Fanny's son Orrison was the son of Joseph Smith, but this was disproven by DNA research

Fawn Brodie, in her critical work No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, claimed that “there is some evidence that Fannie Alger bore Joseph a child in Kirtland.”[11] However, DNA research in 2005 confirmed Fanny Alger’s son Orrison Smith is not the son of Joseph Smith, Jr.[12]


Notes

  1. Dean Zimmerman, I Knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal Views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1976), 38; punctuation and spelling standardized. Cited in Brian Hales, "Fanny Alger," josephsmithspolygamy.org. off-site
  2. Levi Ward Hancock, “Autobiography with Additions in 1896 by Mosiah Hancock,” 63, MS 570, LDS Church History Library, punctuation and spelling standardized; cited portion written by Mosiah. Cited in Brian Hales, "Fanny Alger," josephsmithspolygamy.org. off-site
  3. Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 323–25, 347–49.
  4. Gary James Bergera, "Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841–44," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 38 no. 3 (Fall 2005), 30n75.
  5. Wilhelm Wyl, [Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal], Mormon Portraits Volume First: Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and Friends (Salt Lake City, Utah: Tribune Printing and Publishing Company, 1886), 57; Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy (Hartford, Conn.: Custin, Gilman & Company, 1876), 66–67; discussed in Danel W. Bachman, "A Study of the Mormon Practice of Polygamy before the Death of Joseph Smith" (Purdue University, 1975), 140 and Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 34–35.
  6. Ann Eliza would have observed none of the Fanny marriage at first hand, since she was not born until 1840. The Webbs’ accounts are perhaps best seen as two versions of the same perspective.
  7. Young, Wife No. 19, 66–67; discussed by Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy", 83n102; see also Ann Eliza Webb Young to Mary Bond, 24 April 1876 and 4 May 1876, Myron H. Bond collection, P21, f11, RLDS Archives cited by Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 34 and commentary in Todd Compton, "A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith's Thirty-Three Plural Wives," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29/2 (Summer 1996): 30.
  8. William McLellin, Letter to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, Community of Christ Archives
  9. Ann Eliza Webb Young, Wife No. 19, or The story of a Life in Bondage, 66.
  10. Wilhelm Wyl, Mormon Portraits Volume First: Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and Friends (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886), 57. Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy (Hartford, Conn.: Custin, Gilman & Company, 1876), 66–67. Discussed in Bachman, "Mormon Practice of Polygamy," 140. Also in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 34–35.
  11. Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History.
  12. Ugo A. Perego, Natalie M. Myers, and Scott R. Woodward, “Reconstructing the Y-Chromosome of Joseph Smith Jr.: Genealogical Applications, Journal of Mormon History Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 2005) 70-88.