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

The Joseph Smith-Fanny Alger Relationship - A Brief History

It appears that Joseph Smith’s first plural marriage occurred in the mid-1830s to a domestic in the Smith home, Fanny Alger. Born in September 20, 1816, Fanny was one of ten children born to Samuel Alger and Clarissa Hancock Alger.

Numerous controversies have arisen regarding the relationship:

Dating the Joseph Smith - Fanny Alger relationship?

Smith-Alger relationship - adultery or plural marriage?

More than one Ohio plural marriage?

Theological underpinnings of the first plural marriage?

Authority used to perform the first plural marriage?

Immediate Consequences of the Alger Marriage

Although the historical record provides no specific record of the chronology and interactions between Joseph and Fanny, this first plural marriage could hardly have turned out worse. Both Emma and Fanny were traumatized, and Fanny left Mormonism, never to return. Oliver Cowdery was also alienated, the situation contribution to his eventual excommunication. In addition, accusations of “adultery” required specific damage control efforts by the Prophet himself to suppress an expanding crisis in the Church.

Chauncy Webb suggested that Emma learned about Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger when the girl became pregnant. According to Wilhelm Wyl, who interviewed “Mr. W.”: “In Kirtland, [Joseph] was sealed there secretly to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.”[1] There is no record that Fanny, in fact, had a child, but Emma’s angry reaction would be consistent with her later behavior under similar circumstances. She obviously did not consider it a genuine marriage.[2]

Ann Eliza Webb Young, whose source was doubtless her parents, provided this version of events in 1886:  

Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter,[3] a very pretty, pleasing young girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her; no own 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 it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house.
This sudden movement was incomprehensible, since Emma was known to be a just woman, not given to freaks or caprices, and it was felt that she certainly must have had some very good reason for her action. By degrees it became whispered about that Joseph’s love for his adopted daughter was by no means a paternal affection, and his wife, discovering the fact, at once took measures to place the girl beyond his reach.
Angered at finding the two persons whom she loved most playing such a treacherous part towards her, she by no means spared her reproaches, and, finally, the storm became so furious, that Joseph was obliged to send, at midnight, for Oliver Cowdery, his scribe, to come and endeavor to settle matters between them.[4] 

What role Oliver played, if any, in trying to reduce the emotional mayhem is unclear. 

 As noted above, McLellin asserted that Joseph “confessed humbly, and begged forgiveness. Emma and all forgave him.”[5] Additional details of Emma’s reaction to her husband’s first plural marriage are unavailable. However, two letters that she wrote him in 1837 contain possible hints that she may not have accepted the Alger relationship as a true marriage. While he was in hiding on April 25, she closed her letter with: “I pray that God will keep you in purity and safety till we all meet again.” A letter dated a week later was signed similarly: “I hope that we shall be so humble and pure before God that he will set us at liberty to be our own masters.”[6] I find her mention in both closings of “purity/pure” of possible significance.

Summary

Due to the paucity of documentation regarding the Joseph Smith - Fanny Alger relationship, controversy will doubtless continue regarding its timing and nature.  Newly discovered documents showing Eliza R. Snow was present during the event and was personally acquainted with Fanny and that she considered it a marriage, supports an 1835-1836 timing and the relationship as a matrimony.


[1] Wyl, Mormon Portraits, 57. The use of “sealed” is anachronistic if he is referring to the sealing keys mentioned in D&C 110:13–16 and 132:7, 18, 19, as that sealing authority was not yet restored in 1835 and could not have been used to perform the marriage.

[2] There are certainly a number of scenarios (including miscarriage and stillbirth) by which Fanny could have been pregnant but had no child who made it into contemporary records. In 1878, William McLellin told Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt: “Emma Smith told him that Joseph was both a polygamist and an adulterer.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, Sixth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. SLC: Deseret, 1938. 239). If Emma made such a statement and if McLellin reported it correctly (he would have been seventy-two in 1878), then it may mean that Emma accepted Nauvoo plural marriage as “polygamy,” but rejected Joseph’s Kirtland relationship with Alger, calling it “adultery.”

[3] Ann Eliza Webb Young mistakenly believed that Fanny had been adopted by the Smiths. Other accounts incorrectly refer to her as an orphan. She was neither.

[4] Young, Wife Number 19, 66. On April 12, 1838, David W. Patten testified before the Far West High Council that “He [Oliver] said that Joseph told him, he had confessed to Emma.” Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 167.

[5] William McLellin, Letter to Joseph Smith III, 1872, Community of Christ Archives; photocopy of typescript in LDS Church History Archives, MS 9090 See also Hutchins, “Joseph Smith III: Moderate Mormon.” 79–81. McLellin confuses some names in this letter. Regardless, I believe Joseph Smith was involved with only one plural marriage in Kirtland--with Fanny Alger--so the details, if true, would be referring to that relationship.

[6] Emma Smith, Letters to Joseph Smith, April 25 and May 2, 1837, Joseph Smith Letterbook, Ms d 155, Box 2, fd. 2, CHL, photocopy of holograph, Newell Collection, Marriott Library. Italics mine. Cited in Linda King Newell, “Emma Hale Smith and the Polygamy Question,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 4 (1984): 4.