12. 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 even though a marriage ceremony might have
been the text of the transaction.
Denver Snuffer gives us a good summary of the information about
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:
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
another witness, David Patten, testified:
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
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
Smith testified in the hearing:
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
record contains the court’s decision:
some remarks by the Councellors, it was decided by the Bishop
and his Council that the 1st, 2nd, & 3rd charges were
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Hales writes in Vol. 1, p. 391:
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:
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
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
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.
p. 163 all quotes as in original.
p. 167, meaning that Joseph never acknowledged it was true.
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.
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.
meaning it was true Oliver Cowdery did convey the false idea
Joseph Smith committed adultery.
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.
Referring to Emma Smith, Joseph III’s mother.
Vol. 1, p. 96, citing William E. McLellin, Letter to President
Joseph Smith III, July 1872.
Vol. 1, p. 109, citing Levi Ward Hancock, Autobiography, p. 63.
Vol. 1: History, p. 65.
p. 287, as in original.
e.g., D&C 132:49.
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?’
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.
Mormon wrote to his son, God is neither partial nor changeable,
but is the same always. (Moroni 8:12.)