Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger

Timeline of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger

ca. September 1816–1818

Fanny Alger[BIO] is born in northern Ohio, near Cleveland.[1][2]

November 1830

Samuel Alger[BIO] joins the church in Mayfield, Ohio.[3]

1831

Joseph Smith[BIO] reportedly learns about plural marriage.[4]

July 1834

Joseph receives a visit from an angel commanding him to take plural wives, according to a late recollection.[5]

ca. 1835

Joseph likely marries Fanny Alger during this year.[6] Joseph was about 29 years old and Fanny was probably between 17 and 19 years old.[7]

April 1836

The sealing keys are restored to Joseph in the Kirtland temple.[8]

September 1836

The Alger family leaves Kirtland for Missouri.[9]

November 1836

Fanny Alger marries Solomon Custer.[BIO][10]

April 1838

Oliver Cowdery[BIO] is excommunicated in part for accusing Joseph Smith of adultery with Fanny Alger.[11]

July 12, 1843

The revelation on plural marriage is recorded.[12]

39 years pass.

July 1872

William E. McLellin[BIO] writes a letter to Joseph Smith III[BIO] which includes his recollection from thirty years earlier of a thirdhand account of Emma Smith[BIO] catching Fanny and Joseph together in a barn being "sealed," implying some type of illicit behavior.[13]

April/May 1876

Eliza J. Webb[BIO] writes letters to Mary Bond[BIO] about her recollections from thirty years earlier of Joseph and Fanny Alger.[14]

April 4, 1899

Fanny Alger is posthumously sealed to Joseph Smith in the Salt Lake Temple.[15]

Who was Fanny Alger?

Fanny Alger[BIO] was most likely the first plural wife of Joseph Smith.[16] She was born to Samuel Alger[BIO] and Clarissa Hancock[BIO] (the sister of Levi Hancock[BIO]). Her father joined the Church in 1830 while they were living in Ohio.[17] Fanny ended up living with the Smith family as hired help.[18]

Was Joseph and Fanny's relationship just an affair?

No, probably not. Although there is no official record or date, there are numerous second and thirdhand accounts that refer to their relationship as a marriage[19] and/or sealing.[20] The marriage likely took place in 1835,[21] but there are conflicting accounts.[22]

Wasn’t this marriage before the written revelation on eternal marriage and polygamy?

Yes. The revelation on plural marriage (Doctrine & Covenants 132) was recorded on July 12, 1843,[23] though plural marriage was not announced publicly until 1852.[24]

However, there are accounts that claim Joseph Smith taught plural marriage as early as 1831.[25]

But wasn't it also before the sealing keys were restored?

Yes, probably. The sealing keys were restored in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836,[26] whereas Joseph and Fanny were likely married in 1835.[27]

So if the marriage of Fanny and Joseph was before the keys were restored, how could their marriage have been legitimate?

The Church in 1835 believed that regular marriages could "be solemnized . . . by a presiding high priest, high priest, bishop, elder, or priest,"[28] though the concept of eternal marriage/sealing hadn't been introduced yet.[29] Joseph himself performed a marriage that same year.[30]

How old was Fanny when she married Joseph Smith?

Depending on Fanny's actual birth year, she would have been between 17 and 19 years old.[31] The marriage likely took place in 1835,[32] though there are conflicting accounts.[33]

Joseph was 29 years old in 1835.[34]

Isn't it creepy to have a 29-year-old marry an 18-year-old?

Maybe. It wasn't strange for the time though.[35] Marriage age gaps in the mid-1800s averaged between four and seven years depending on the region.[36]

One study of marriages in 1880 indicated that husbands aged 34–38 in the U.S. had an average age gap of approximately 10 years.[37] The 1850 US Census indicated that about 25% of women married in the West-South Central region were 15–19 years old.[38]

Since Joseph was Fanny's religious leader and employer, was the relationship kind of problematic?

Maybe. It's unclear how Fanny personally felt about it.[39] There's no evidence that she was coerced, and available historical records indicate that she agreed to the arrangement, as did her family.[40] Contemporaries seemed principally concerned with Fanny being Joseph's second marriage, not the context or dynamics of that relationship.[41]

How long did Joseph's relationship with Fanny last?

It's unclear. Possibly less than a year,[42] or maybe even a little over two years.[43] She reportedly lived with the Smiths for "several years" before she left for Missouri[44] with her family in 1836.[45] Later that year, she married a non-Latter-day Saint named Solomon Custer[BIO] in Indiana.[46]

Was their relationship sexual?

Possibly. Although neither Joseph nor Fanny left any record of the relationship, there were rumors and gossip about a sexual relationship.[47] In a letter to his brother, Oliver Cowdery[BIO] referred to their relationship as a “dirty, nasty, filthy scrape” (the word scrape was later edited by Oliver's nephew to say affair).[48]

Were Joseph and Fanny caught having sex in a barn?

Probably not. The only historical record with that detail comes from an 1872 account from William McLellin,[BIO] who claimed Joseph and Fanny were "caught in the act" of being "sealed" in a barn by Emma Smith.[BIO][49] In addition to the account being thirdhand and a recollection from many decades later, McLellin had been excommunicated for apostasy, had a personal vendetta against Joseph, and was an active participant in the Missouri mobs.[50]

Did Fanny have children with Joseph Smith?

No, probably not. DNA tests have shown that several candidates for Joseph's offspring via polygamy (including through Fanny) are most likely not his direct offspring.[51]

Was Fanny Alger pregnant? Did she have a miscarriage?

Possibly, though pregnancy is only mentioned in one very late account, attributed to Chauncey Griswold Webb[BIO] and recorded in an anti-Mormon book.[52] Miscarriage is not mentioned in any historical record.

But didn't Emma push Fanny down the stairs and cause her to miscarry?

No. This has been confused with a story circulated about Eliza R. Snow,[BIO][53] but that story is probably untrue.[54]

What did Oliver Cowdery mean when he called Fanny and Joseph’s relationship an "affair/scrape"?

He probably meant a sexual affair. An account of the 1838 high council meeting on the subject of Oliver Cowdery’s knowledge of the relationship refers to it as an “adultery scrape.”[55]

Cowdrey could have also been using a more general term. A contemporary dictionary defined the word "affair" as "business of any kind," "transactions in general," the "condition of business or concern," or "a private dispute."[56] The same dictionary defined "scrape" as "Difficulty; perplexity; distress; that which harasses."[57]

What was the conclusion of the 1838 high council meeting? 

Oliver was found guilty of "seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jr, by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery" and was excommunicated.[58] The council also determined that Joseph had not committed adultery nor confessed such to Oliver.[59] Oliver was rebaptized into the Church in November 1848.[60]

Was Emma okay with the marriage?

No, probably not. Although there are no firsthand records of how Emma felt, many decades later it was reported that she was upset when she learned of the marriage.[61]

Why was the marriage done in secret?

It's unclear. Several late accounts indicate that Joseph was reluctant to practice plural marriage.[62] One account recalled Joseph's own "repugnance," "prejudices and prepossessions" toward plural marriage along with "those of the whole Christian world."[63][64] But he may have especially worried about Emma's reaction.[65]

Did Fanny ever say anything about her relationship with Joseph Smith?

Possibly. A single, very late source reported her saying this about her relationship with Joseph Smith: “That is all a matter of my own, and I have nothing to communicate.”[66]

Did Fanny stay committed to the Church after she left Kirtland?

No, probably not. The last time she appeared in Church records was in 1840.[67] Fanny's obituaries noted that she joined the Universalist Church and became involved in the practice of spiritualism, but they don't mention Joseph Smith or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[68] Some of her family remained with the Church.[69]

Some People Say . . .

Fanny who?

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • There are no firsthand accounts from Fanny or Joseph about their relationship.

  • The earliest accounts detailing the relationship are second and thirdhand accounts recalled over 30 years later.

  • Multiple sources describe the Alger/Smith relationship as a marriage or sealing.

  • The historical record is inconsistent on the age of Fanny at the time of marriage, but she was probably between 17 and 19 years old and Joseph was 29 years old.

  • This age differential was relatively common at the time.

  • The historical record is inconsistent on the date of the marriage, but it was probably 1835.

  • Multiple sources describe Emma as being upset about the marriage.

  • Oliver Cowdery thought the relationship was adulterous, but the 1838 High Council disagreed.

  • The marriage was before Doctrine and Covenants 132, the revelation on eternal marriage and polygamy.

  • Some sources indicate that Joseph was aware of the principle of plural marriage as early as 1831.

  • In 1899, Fanny and Joseph were posthumously sealed under the direction of Lorenzo Snow.

Our Take

The history of polygamy can be uncomfortable or frustrating, and even more so when it relates to Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger, the first polygamous relationship. Did Joseph make up polygamy to justify cheating on Emma? Was there a power imbalance with Joseph being her employer and a prophet? What about that age gap?

Unfortunately, there are very few contemporary historical records on this relationship and there are no historical records from Joseph or Fanny. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the story using historical evidence and makes it tough to answer the hard questions about Joseph and Fanny in a satisfying way.

What we can say is that there was a relationship that was a marriage sometime around 1835. Fanny was probably around 18 years old and Joseph was 29. Census records show that for the time period, this was not an unusual age gap. The records indicate that Oliver Cowdery did not approve of the relationship, and neither did Emma. It seemed Joseph’s contemporaries were mostly concerned with this being Joseph’s second marriage, not a power imbalance. Records also seem to indicate Joseph was aware of the principle of polygamy before this relationship, even though the revelation on plural marriage wasn't recorded until 1843.

Other accounts about getting caught in a barn and pregnancy appeared over 30 years later by William McLellin and Chauncy Webb, both of whom had bitter feelings towards Joseph.

One reasonable interpretation is that the relationship with Fanny seems to be the first attempt to start practicing polygamy, one that appears to have been fumbled by Joseph. Though Joseph might have been imperfect in implementing polygamy, we can rely on a spiritual witness that comes by study and faith on Joseph Smith’s role as prophet of God.

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Footnotes