Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger
Joseph Smith’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger, a teenage girl (roughly age 16 to 19) living in his home as a maid sometime between 1833 and 1835, has been a fact discussed by historians, biographers, and critics of Mormonism for many years. In an article on the official website of the LDS Church in October 2014, the fact of that relationship is acknowledged but it is characterized as his first “plural marriage.”1 By describing Fanny as a plural wife, Mormons can admit that Joseph engaged in sexual relations with Fanny while denying that Joseph should be accused of adultery. In their view, plural marriage is morally acceptable and in fact was for Joseph and other nineteenth-century Mormons a divine command. However, the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Joseph had made no claim to a plural marriage with Fanny Alger at the time of their relationship, as shall be explained in this article.
The Tenuous Basis for the Plural Marriage View
Some Utah Mormons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did speak of Fanny as Joseph’s plural wife. These testimonies are suspect because of their very late date (some sixty to seventy years after the fact) and because they came from Mormons who at the time were committed to the belief that polygamy had been divinely mandated by God through Joseph Smith.2 Of these testimonies, the one on which Mormons depend the most when defending Joseph’s relationship with Fanny is also secondhand and dubious on its own merits. This testimony comes from Mosiah Hancock, who added a story in 1896 to the autobiography of his father Levi Ward Hancock, according to which Levi officiated in the ceremony uniting Joseph and Fanny. One doubtful aspect of the story is that Fanny’s parents are represented as giving their permission without any hesitation or misgivings.3 Given that Fanny would have been Joseph’s first plural wife, it seems implausible that no one voiced any objections or concerns. Another problem with Mosiah’s secondhand report is that it is contradicted by a much earlier secondhand account, that of Eliza Jane Churchill Webb. In a letter written in 1876, Eliza stated that Fanny’s mother Clarissa Hancock Alger had told her that Oliver Cowdery had sealed Fanny to Joseph.4 This account has a different problem: Cowdery himself clearly did not think of the relationship as a marriage, as shall be explained shortly below.
What Those Closest to Joseph and Fanny Thought
There are other reasons to doubt that anyone considered Joseph’s relationship with Fanny at the time as a marriage. For one thing, Emma threw Fanny out of their house when she found out about it. How she found out is also uncertain, since the reports in this regard are also somewhat late and secondhand. Most likely she discovered them in the act (two reports had her seeing them through a crack in a barn door). A less likely explanation is that Emma found out that Fanny was pregnant; however, there is no evidence that such a pregnancy occurred. In any case, it is clear that Emma did not consider the relationship a marriage.5 In fact, the evidence shows that Joseph did not even try to tell Emma that his sexual activity with Fanny was part of a plural marriage, since he never told her about plural marriages until 1842 or 1843.6 The LDS.org article ignores this fact even as it comments in generalities about “Emma’s reactions to plural marriage.”
Second, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, two of Joseph’s closest associates, also considered the relationship to have been simply adulterous. Harris was Joseph’s earliest and most important financial backer, and Cowdery was the principal scribe for Joseph when he dictated the text of the Book of Mormon. Cowdery wrote a letter to his brother Warren in January 1838 referring to “a dirty, nasty, filthy scrape affair of his and Fanny Alger’s.”7 Rumors of the matter had troubled the Mormons in Kirtland and Far West for about a year and came to a head in April 1838, when the Far West High Council excommunicated Cowdery on various charges including denigrating Joseph Smith’s character “by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery.”8 The council’s denial of the adultery accusation was not, it should be noted, based on any notion that the relationship in question was a plural marriage. Evidently, it simply accepted Joseph’s claim that there was nothing to the accusation. The Cowdery letter and documentation concerning his excommunication provide by far the earliest sources of information about Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger, and it comes from an associate who was far closer to Joseph in the early 1830s than any of the Mormons who much later claimed it was a plural marriage.
Mormons generally claim—again based on later testimonies from Utah Mormons—that Joseph had received a revelation of the principle of plural marriage in 1831 and had shared it with at least some trusted associates then or shortly thereafter. Had he done so, these associates would have included both Cowdery and Harris, among others.9 If so, it is difficult to know why they denied the relationship was a marriage. It is especially implausible that Cowdery would characterize a plural marriage with Fanny Alger as adultery and force the issue to the point of getting excommunicated six or seven years after learning about the principle. Obviously, he did not perform the marriage, as Eliza Webb had claimed, but he also clearly did not think it was a marriage at all. The evidence is better explained on the view that Joseph did not begin secretly teaching about plural marriage until at least 1841, when he began taking numerous plural wives.10
Given the secretiveness of Joseph’s polygamy, it may be impossible to prove definitively that Joseph made no claim to have entered into a plural marriage with Fanny Alger at the time. Nevertheless, there is very good evidence against that claim. This evidence comes from individuals who were far closer to Joseph in the early 1830s than any of the Mormons who much later claimed it was a plural marriage.
No “Sealing” Authority
Regardless of whether Joseph ever claimed that his relationship with Fanny Alger was a plural marriage, he certainly had no authority to form such a marriage. Bigamy—being married to two women at the same time—was illegal.
Nor did Joseph have any divine basis for authorizing such plural marriages, even if one accepts the Mormon concept of “sealing.” The usual LDS understanding is that Joseph was given such authority in April 1836, when he claimed that he and Oliver Cowdery had a vision in which Elijah appeared to them and gave them “the keys of this dispensation” (Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-3). That revelation actually had nothing to do with plural marriage or with marriage at all. Yet even if one accepts the later Mormon practice of reading back into the passage the authority to perform “celestial” marriage, such authority was unavailable to Joseph prior to April 1836. Yet by all accounts Joseph’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger had started well before that date.11 This fact forces Hales to admit that “Levi could not have been commissioned with the same authority by which Nauvoo plural marriages would be sealed a half decade later.”12 He solves the problem by asserting that Joseph Smith probably “invoked his general priesthood authority, rather than specific keys for a sealing ceremony, to unite believing couples in a way not allowed by ‘Gentile law.’”13 This explanation is ad hoc (that is, there is no evidence for it) and has another problem: Joseph Smith’s claim to have received that priesthood authority in 1829 from resurrected personages was itself a later invention. The main textual basis for this claim is a lengthy passage inserted in 1835 into the revelation previously published in 1833 as Book of Commandments 28 by splicing it literally into the middle of a sentence (the present Doctrine and Covenants 27:5-13). Joseph evidently came up with the idea of a restored priesthood authority conferred by heavenly visitors sometime between the two publications (probably sometime in 1834).14
To summarize the main points here:
(1) Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger was regarded by those closest to him—his wife Emma and two of his earliest associates, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris—as adulterous. Cowdery was excommunicated in part over his criticism of Joseph’s adultery.
(2) The stories describing Fanny as a plural wife of Joseph are very late, typically secondhand, and implausible in various respects.
(3) Joseph Smith had no legal or religious authority to take Fanny as a plural wife, even if one were to concede his later claim to religious authority to do so with other women.
For these reasons, we are on solid ground in concluding that Joseph’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger was a simple case of adultery.
For in-depth treatment of some of the issues discussed here, see also the following articles:
And see further our main page on Polygamy, from which you can find still other articles.
2. Both Compton and Hales, the two most prominent LDS scholars writing on polygamy, argue that Fanny Alger was Joseph’s first plural wife based on these late testimonies from Utah Mormons. See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 28-33; Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:107-119.
3. For the text of Mosiah’s account, see Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 32.
4. Eliza Jane Churchill Webb, letter to Mary Bond, April 24, 1876. Hales quotes this letter to establish a date of the sealing to 1835 rather than 1833, but takes no notice of the discrepancy regarding the officiant; Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 104.
5. As Compton and Hales both acknowledge; see Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 34-35; Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:96-97, 120-22.
6. At one point, Hales includes Emma in a list of individuals whom Joseph told about plural marriage prior to the Nauvoo period (Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:183), i.e., 1831-1837, but this is clearly incorrect. In a later chapter Hales shows that Emma did not learn about Joseph’s polygamy until at least 1842 (2:38-41), at least seven years after his sexual relationship with Fanny Alger. In a more recent article, Hales states that Joseph kept Emma “in the dark” about plural marriage until “the spring of 1843.” Brian C. Hales, “Stretching to Find the Negative: Gary Bergera’s Review of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 6 (2013): 175 (165-90).
7. Cowdery had written “scrape” and then overwritten the word with “affair.” Although the word “affair” did not denote adultery in early nineteenth-century usage (Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:139-40), adultery was in context clearly the topic. David W. Patten, one of the apostles involved in excommunicating Cowdery, referred to the controversy as “the adultery scrape” (ibid., 1:141).
8. Ibid., 1:141.
9. Ibid., 1:85-91, 106, 183-84.
10. Scholars have identified at most only one other woman whom Joseph might have claimed as a plural wife prior to 1841. Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, the wife of George Washington Harris, became one of Joseph’s dozen or more plural wives who were already married to other men. The date when this “marriage” took place is unknown, with some scholars favoring 1838 (e.g., Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 49-50) while Hales suggests 1841 (Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 58-67). Either way, the evidence simply does not support the claim that Joseph was taking plural wives in formal ceremonies when he was living in Kirtland, Ohio, in the early to mid-1830s.
11. There is some uncertainty as to the date, due of course to the secretiveness of the relationship. It is usually dated in late 1832 or early 1833, e.g., Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 26-33. Others date the beginning of the relationship to 1835, e.g., Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:99-106.
12. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:119.
13. Ibid., 1:120.