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Joseph Smith - Honest Seer or Lying Polygamist

9. The "marriage" to Fanny Alger in 1835

It is claimed that Joseph's first plural wife was Fanny Alger as early as 1835. However there are several reasons to doubt that they had a marriage relationship.
1. They were both active in bearing children, but this union produced no children
2. Oliver Cowdery in 1838 admitted in his High Council trial that there was no adultery with Fanny Alger even though he had implied such was the case.
3. Instead of a marriage this appears to be one of the first sealings to Joseph Smith. Levi Hancock (Fanny's uncle) performed the ceremony with the words given to him by Joseph Smith.
In a Plural Marriage paper, Denver Snuffer gives us a good summary of the information about Fanny Alger.

The earliest authoritative suggestion of Joseph’s involvement with plural wives is contained in a high council court proceeding before the Far West High Council in April 1838. The case involved seven charges against Oliver Cowdrey. This disciplinary counsel led to the excommunication of Oliver Cowdrey from the church.20 The second charge in the court proceedings was, “for seeking to destroying the character of President Joseph Smith Jr by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery &c.”21 In the transcript of the hearing George W. Harris, one of the witnesses, testified concerning Oliver Cowdrey:

he seemed to insinuate that Joseph Smith Jr was guilty of adultery, but when the question was put, if he (Joseph) had ever acknowledged to him that he was guilty of such a thing; when he answered No.22

Next another witness, David Patten, testified:

he went to Oliver Cowdrey to enquire of him if a certain story was true respecting J. Smith's committing adultery with a certain girl,23 when he turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty; he then went on and gave a history of some circumstances respecting the adultery scrape stating that no doubt it was true.24

Thomas Marsh testified:

while in Kirtland last summer, David W. Patten asked Oliver Cowdrey if he Joseph Smith Jr had confessed to his wife that he was guilty of adultery with a certain girl, when Oliver cocked up his eye very knowingly and hesitated to answer the question, saying he did not know as he was bound to answer the question yet conveyed the idea that it was true.25

Joseph Smith testified in the hearing:

Joseph Smith Jr testifies that Oliver Cowdrey had been his bosom friend, therefore he intrusted him with many things. He then gave a history respecting the girl business.26

The record contains the court’s decision:

After some remarks by the Councellors, it was decided by the Bishop and his Council that the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd charges were sustained…27

It was the second charge that dealt with the false accusation against Joseph Smith that he committed adultery. The complaint that Oliver Cowdrey was falsely attributing to Joseph Smith the untrue claim he (Joseph) committed adultery was sustained. Oliver Cowdery “was, therefore, considered no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”28

This decision was made in the court on April 12, 1838. Oliver was excommunicated. Five-and-a-half months later Joseph Smith was taken as a prisoner by the Missouri authorities on November 1st. Shortly thereafter he was transferred to, and confined in, the Liberty Jail for half a year.

In 1838 Joseph and the church lost the History of the Church because church historian John Whitmer also left the church. That same year all Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon also left the faith. Many friends abandoned Joseph, many leaders including members of the twelve apostles, abandoned Mormonism and Joseph. In these terrible circumstances, Joseph Smith began to re-create the History of the Church.

Joseph’s history was composed following the court in Far West quoted above. As Joseph wrote his 1838 history, he was addressing the events (including the allegation of adultery raised in Oliver Cowdrey’s trial). He wrote to his critics and former friends. His history begins with these words:

Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof  to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world—I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession.29

The history he composed in the wake of that court proceeding confesses his weakness and sin. But he clarifies what his sins included and specifically what they did NOT include:

I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.30

Joseph made it clear in his own words that while he confessed his sins, foibles and weaknesses, he did not commit “malignant sins.” Fanny Alger may well have been Joseph Smith’s first plural wife but whatever else that may have involved there was no “malignant sin” or adultery involved with the relationship.

Fanny Alger subsequently married another man. With her husband she bore nine children. Joseph Smith fathered eight children with Emma Smith. But with Fanny and Joseph in the prime of their reproductive years, together they produced no children.

There is a late account taken from William McLellin, once a member of the twelve. He was interviewed in 1875 and provided an account of Joseph and Fanny’s marriage. The interviewer recorded:

My first call was on Dr. William E McLellin, whose name you will find in every number of the old Millennial Star, and in many of Smith’s revelations. If found the old gentleman in pleasant quarters… He also informed me of the spot where the first well authenticated case of polygamy took place, in which Joseph Smith was “sealed” to the hired girl. The “sealing” took place in a barn on the hay mow, and was witnessed by Mrs. Smith through a crack in the door.31

McLellin was the source that provided a second account of the Smith-Alger barn encounter. He wrote to Joseph Smith III a letter in July 1872. In his letter he recounts the story with these words:

Again I told her32 I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. [S]he 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.33

The transaction in the barn appears to have been a wedding ceremony conducted by Levi Hancock. As the autobiography of Levi Hancock with additions by Mosiah Hancock (his son) records, “Father gave her to Joseph repeating the Ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.”34

These accounts are all decades after the events. They are told either by a disaffected ex-church leader or by a man who devoutly believed in plural marriage as a requirement for God’s favor.

There are many versions of what Emma Smith observed between Joseph and Fanny “in the barn” arising from this event. My theory of what happened, taking Joseph Smith’s claim he was not “guilty of any great or malignant sins at face value, is this: Emma Smith came to the barn, and through an ajar door observed inside the barn Joseph Smith, Fanny Alger, and Levi Hancock. Levi was given the words of a ceremony to marry the two for all eternity. This was “the transaction in the barn” and Emma overheard the “transaction.” If you take all the material gathered by Hales and you consider it as one, the “transaction in the barn” did not involve Joseph having sex in a haystack, being caught in the very act by Emma. Of course a number of people have asserted this was what happened. Even good-faith believing Mormons think happened. Some people who regard Joseph Smith as a prophet think he had an illicit sexual encounter in the barn with Fanny Alger, witnessed by Emma Smith. This was the subject of the second charge against Oliver Cowdrey when he was excommunicated. His charge against Joseph for Fanny Alger was found to be untrue, and he was excommunicated for making it (among other reasons). It becomes clear to me that whatever went on in the barn it did not involve adultery. Strengthening this conclusion is Hales’ observation, “no record has been found from any woman claiming that she had been ‘seduced’ by Joseph Smith.”35

Brian Hales provides an elaborate analysis to support his conclusion that Joseph Smith may have had sexual relations with a few. Hales acknowledges, however, “sexual relations occurred infrequently, at best.”36 Let me suggest an analytical framework that may be useful. None of us should want to attribute to Joseph Smith sexual sins when it is not true. I do not want to call him a liar without sufficient reason.

Joseph Smith, if a prophet of God, is entitled to only be convicted on the same standard we would convict anyone else of a serious crime. As a lawyer I know to convict someone of bad conduct boarding on criminality, the burden of proof is “beyond any reasonable doubt.” If you have any reasonable doubt, you must not convict. I think a prophet of God is entitled to the same standard of proof. Therefore, if there is reason to doubt, I say we ought doubt. We should say, I cannot in good conscience conclude Joseph Smith was an adulterer and liar—unless we have proof that removes all reasonable doubts on the subject. If the record is a blank page, and we write on it what is in our own heart, then I choose to write innocence for Joseph upon that page.

Brian Hales writes in Vol. 1, p. 391:

None of these women left a specific record of how Joseph Smith explained the principle of plural marriage to them, the specific path they followed to come to an acceptance of the principal, or what exactly it meant to them in terms of their daily lives and activities.

We do not have the necessary information to allow us to reconstruct it without reasonable doubts about whether we know the truth. Brian Hales believes that Eliza Snow may have been one of the women with whom Joseph Smith had sexual intercourse. However, he also quotes an 1877 letter from Eliza to RLDS missionary, Daniel Lund. Eliza R. Snow wrote:

You asked (referring to President Smith), did he authorize or practice spiritual wifery? Were you a spiritual wife? I certainly shall not acknowledge myself of having been a carnal one.37

If Eliza R. Snow was not a “carnal wife,” then what does that mean? It is her term in her letter. What doubts does that leave in your mind about her and Joseph having carnal relations? Are your doubts reasonable? For me, I have doubt there was any sexual relations between Eliza R. Snow and Joseph Smith. Some accuse Joseph Smith without sufficient proof, and they will find God applies that same standard to them.38 It has even been foolishly claimed by some that they have “prayed” and God has revealed to them Joseph was an adulterer! I would never trust such a “revelation” as proof. Christ did not accuse the woman taken in adultery, even when He had eyewitness proof against her.39 If He would not condemn her with such proof, why would the same God condemn Joseph Smith in a “revelation” because someone asked in prayer? Would the same Lord of mercy send the woman taken in adultery away without condemnation but condemn Joseph? Would our Lord divert our attention from the history we have that lacks proof of this about Joseph to furnish proof through prayer to diminish His servant Joseph? When the Lord sent an angel to tell Joseph that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations” am I to assume it would be the Lord Himself who would speak both “good”40 and “evil”41 of Joseph? Satan is the “accuser of the brethren” not God.42 If in an answer to prayer anyone listens to an accusing spirit to judge Joseph, I very much suspect they would be in tune with the wrong source,43 or else God has become changeable44 and contradicts His own prior revelations.

20 The entire proceeding can be found in Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844, Edited by Donald Q. Cannon, Lyndon W. Cook, Deseret Book (Salt Lake City, 1983), pp. 162-171.

21 Id., p. 163 all quotes as in original.

22 Id., p. 167, meaning that Joseph never acknowledged it was true.

23 The record is footnoted by Cannon and Cook to add, “The girl referred to here is Fanny Alger, Joseph Smith’s first plural wife.” Id. at p. 171, footnote 18. They cite as support a letter from Oliver Cowdery to Warren Cowdery January 21, 1838 in the Huntington Library, a copy of which is on microfilm at Church Archives, and another letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to Elder George S. Gibbs in 1911. A typewritten copy of the Johnson letter is at Brigham Young University.

24 Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844, p. 167—meaning that the accusation against Oliver Cowdery was true, i.e. he had insinuated this about Joseph Smith and adultery.

25 Id. meaning it was true Oliver Cowdery did convey the false idea Joseph Smith committed adultery.

26 Id., p. 168.

27 Id., p. 169

28 Id., p. 169.

29 JS-H 1:1.

30 Id., v. 28.

31 Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Vol. 1: History, p. 97, citing J.H. Beadle, “Jackson County,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 6, 1875, emphasis added by Hales.

32 Referring to Emma Smith, Joseph III’s mother.

33 Hales, Vol. 1, p. 96, citing William E. McLellin, Letter to President Joseph Smith III, July 1872.

34 Hales, Vol. 1, p. 109, citing Levi Ward Hancock, Autobiography, p. 63.

35 Hales, Vol. 1: History, p. 65.

36 Id., p. 297.

37 Id., p. 287, as in original.

38 Matt. 7:1-2.

39 John 8:3-11.

40 See, e.g., D&C 132:49.

41 By answering a “prayer” informing the inquirer Joseph was “an adulterer” it appears to me to qualify as “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed.” It seems incongruent to me for the Lord to call Joseph, accomplish a great work through him, expect mankind to “seek blessings under his hand” (D&C 122:1-2), but then supplement the posthumous record by a revelation condemning him. Is the Lord among the ‘fools who shall hold Joseph in derision?’ (D&C 122:1.)

42 Rev. 12:10.

43 Whatever the “spirit” is that makes an accusation against Joseph, it is not holy. Christ and the Father have the same mind, which mind is the Holy Spirit. Lecture 5, ¶2. Therefore when Christ declined to accuse the woman taken in adultery, He reflected His Father’s mind as well as His own.

44 As Mormon wrote to his son, God is neither partial nor changeable, but is the same always. (Moroni 8:12.)