New Book!



Books by Brian C. Hales dealing with "Mormon fundamentalist" polygamy:

Joseph Smith's Polygamy Theology at the Time of the Fanny Alger Marriage in the mid-1830s

The Prophet’s first plural marriage occurred in the mid-1830s with Fanny Alger at Kirtland, Ohio.  Current research demonstrates that at that time, Joseph had not publicly divulged any of the doctrines regarding eternal and plural marriage that he would later teach in Nauvoo.  It appears that the Prophet discussed the possibility of eternal matrimony, but without any reference to marriage sealing ordinances.  Nor were vertical linkages of children to parents or vicarious priesthood rites mentioned. Several scenarios could explain this observation.

First, antagonists may assert that the Prophet was making up the doctrines as he went along, producing teachings as required in order to cover-up his extramarital affairs.   Accordingly, in the mid-1830s, he had not yet produced the theology that could transform his licentiousness into a God-sanctioned practice.  Problems exist with this reconstruction. Historical sources indicate the Prophet then knew that Old Testament polygamy might need to be restored through him.  Lyman E. Johnson's reported: “Joseph had made known to him as early as 1831 that plural marriage was a correct principle.”[1]  And that in 1903, Benjamin F. Johnson recalled that back in 1835 he learned "that the ancient order of plural marriage was again to be practiced by the Church."[2]  At that time, observing that the "ancient or of plural marriage" needed to be restored may have been sufficient to convince both participants. It is likely that they would have required no additional theological explanations.  It could be argued that no additional doctrines were ever needed.  Also, the more compelling historical data indicates that a plural marriage ceremony was performed between Joseph and Fanny by Levi Hancock and that all participants considered it a genuine marriage. 

The second reconstruction theorizes that in the 1830s, Joseph Smith knew far more about the new and everlasting covenant than he was then divulging.  It asserts that he was informed regarding the new and everlasting covenant of marriage when he married Fanny Alger.  No contemporaneous evidence supports this position and the sealings keys had yet to be restored by Elijah (which occurred on April 3, 1836).  However, after Emma dispatched Fanny from the Smith home, she went to live with Chauncy and Eliza Churchill Webb.  Eliza recalled in 1876:  "I do not know that the ‘sealing’ commenced in Kirtland but I am perfectly satisfied that something similar commenced, and my judgment is principally formed from what Fanny Alger told me herself …"[3]  "Fanny Alger's mother says Fanny was sealed to Joseph… in Kirtland in 1835-or 6."[4]  These references to "sealings" appear anachronistic, but Joseph Smith taught:  "Could you gaze in heaven 5 minutes you would know more than you possibly can know by read all that ever was written on the subject."[5]  He reported a vision of the Celestial Kingdom in 1832 (see D&C 76:19-21, 50-70, 92-96).  Perhaps in the mid-1830s he understood many more details than he was openly disclosing. 

A third interpretation seems the most probable.  It acknowledges that the Prophet learned in the early 1830s that Old Testament polygamy could be acceptable to God and would need to be restored, but was then unaware of the new and everlasting covenant with all its associated doctrines.  Joseph Smith's possible ignorance of the more lofty teachings would not have deterred him had the angel appeared and demanded obedience.  Then according to the precept that God “will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12; see also Isaiah 28:10), the Prophet gained more insight over the ensuing years until he comprehended the doctrines he would share privately in Illinois.  In this view, even when he received sealing authority in 1836, he may not have then realized its full significance.


Whether Joseph Smith knew about the new and everlasting covenant of marriage at the time he married his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, in the mid-1830s at Kirtland, Ohio, is unknown.  However, the Prophet was already established as a restorer.  The only excuse or reason he ever needed to promote in order to justify the reintroduction of plural marriage was to assert the restoration of Old Testament polygamy.  The Old Testament provides no marriage theology, monogamous or polygamous, hence there would have been no need to provide an ideological foundation or additional religious justification.  Joseph Smith's Nauvoo theology includes plural marriage as one small component in a complex and expansive cosmology.  (See discussion in Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Theology. vol. 2, chapter ten, Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011.)

[1] Recalled by his mission companion, Orson Pratt, “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star, 40 (December 16, 1878): 788.  Also in Andrew Jenson, "Plural Marriage," Historical Record 6 (July 1887):230.  “The only mission to which Elders Pratt and Johnson were called together commenced January 25, 1832, and ended approximately in September, 1832 (D&C 75:14; History of the Church, 1:244, 286).

[2] Dean R. Zimmerman, ed., 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, UT: Horizon, 1976, 38.

[3] Eliza J. Webb [Eliza Jane Churchill Webb], Lockport, New York, to Mary Bond, May 4, 1876, Biographical Folder Collection, P21, f11, item 7, 8, Community of Christ Archives.

[4] Eliza J. Webb [Eliza Jane Churchill Webb], Lockport, New York, to Mary Bond, April 24, 1876, Biographical Folder Collection, P21, f11, item 7, 8, Community of Christ Archives.

[5] Andrew F. Ehat, and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980, 254, Willard Richards reporting.