What Happened between Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith?
As a young woman, Fanny Alger was a servant in Joseph Smith’s house. She lived with the family for a time while also serving as a maid. Joseph Smith and Fanny got very close. Multiple accounts exist of Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife catching Joseph celestializing (sexually involved) with Fanny Alger in the family barn. Emma sees the “transaction” through a hole in the barn. She is upset and becomes very angry and even violent with Joseph. Emma becomes so angry, Joseph seeks help from his trusted scribe Oliver Cowdery. Church leaders come to cast the devil out of her. Emma banishes Fanny Alger from the Smith home. After Joseph sufficiently humbles himself and begs forgiveness from his wife, Emma does forgive him.
Fanny, after being kicked out, moves away and marries a non-Mormon on November 16, 1836. Her husband is Solomon Custer and they live in Dublin City, Indiana where they remain. Fanny bears nine children, away from the drama of Joseph Smith and the Mormon church.
Oliver Cowdery knew of Joseph and Fanny’s relationship since he was called to the scene to help resolve it. He never denied it, and later referred to it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair”. Joseph Smith never denied the relationship either, but adamantly insisted it was not adulterous. Cowdery is later excommunicated in 1838 because he would not recant his statements about Smith’s adulterous affair.
The incident in the barn when they “spied upon and found together” happened reportedly on November 6, 1832, and there are multiple accounts putting it on this date by those involved in the aftermath. Though some other rough dates are also reported namely Martin Harris says in or about 1833. We’ll explore this story further in this article and compare these first-hand accounts to what the church admits to today in the Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo Gospel Topic Essay.
The Gospel Topic Essay about Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Today, the church and apologists claim Fanny was Joseph’s first plural wife, even though he didn’t develop or announce the plural marriage doctrine until much later. The church essay also claims there was a sealing ordinance, but there is no record of it and the sealing power wasn’t “revealed” until much later. They are sure to mention though, that Joseph was forced against his will by an angel with a sword to practice plural marriage. It progressed to an angel with a flaming sword before Joseph was convinced to obey the commandment. There is also no record, of Joseph shaking hands with the angel to determine if it was a real messenger from the Lord. Either way, we are to believe that had he not explored or experimented with a relationship with Fanny Alger, the angel would have destroyed him with this flaming sword.
Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.
Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on the angel’s first command by marrying a plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents. Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois.Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, Gospel Topic Essay, Official Church Website
The church is working the Fanny Alger story into the Polygamy (or plural marriage) narrative. It must have been beforehand since no plural marriage revelations occurred until years later, as the essay itself claims “as early as 1840”. They must resort to using phrases like “fragmentary evidence suggests” that Joseph acted on the angel’s first command by marrying Fanny as his first plural wife in the mid-1830s. They are trying to push the date of the “transaction” as late as possible in the minds of the reader and the date of his plural marriage revelations as early as possible. How is 1832 represented as the mid-1830s? By the mid-1830s Fanny had moved on and was married to someone else! This is misleading and disingenuous. They include as their reference that “several” church members report “decades later that Joseph Smith has married Alger”, but only refer to one, Levi Hancock, who apparently performed the marriage but there is no record and no witness even of the marriage until at least 30 years later. Other accounts surface 60 years later according to Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling.
“Little is known about this marriage” because there is no record of it. There is one account of it being a marriage but is not recorded until over thirty years later and is second-hand. The first-hand accounts, also have nothing to say about it being a marriage. Simple logic leads us to believe it was not a marriage. The church is desperate to make this a marriage because the sexual encounter is undeniable, so Joseph either had an affair and adulterous relationship with a teenage housemaid as early as 1832, or it was an early experimentation with plural marriage, we just don’t have documentation about it. That’s giving Brother Joseph a break in all the ways the church can.
The “nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma” part is fascinating. We know from multiple accounts that state the essay references the consent Joseph obtained from Fanny Alger and her parents, that Emma was furious when she found out. There are multiple accounts of her finding them in the barn and becoming enraged and sending Fanny away. The essay does mention that the marriage ended in separation, but the omit the fact that the separation is caused by Joseph’s wife, Emma, so we can surmise that she was not aware of the “marriage” and did not consent. There were apparently no conversations between Joseph and his wife about his interest in Fanny, or at least no conversations where Emma gave her consent. If there were, why would she have been so upset to discover the affair?
Another misleading statement in the essay is the concluding sentence in the single paragraph about Fanny Alger. It simply states that “the marriage with Alger ended in separation,” but does not explain the reason for this. If they did, they would have to explain that it was because Emma caught Joseph cheating on her and banished Fanny from their home! After the unexplained mysterious separation, the essay states that Joseph “set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo”. Mormons arrived in Commerce in late 1839 and Joseph renamed it to “Nauvoo” in April 1840. So most reasonably we can say 8 years after Joseph’s affair with Fanny, he gets over the repentance he pleads for from Emma, and gets the idea to try again. This time using religion to support his advances.
Joseph Smith Excommunicates Oliver Cowdery
The essay claims that “several” members report decades later that Joseph had married Fanny Alger, but omits the fact that Oliver Cowdery reported at the time that Joseph was having a “dirty, nasty, filthy, affair”. Oliver was convinced Joseph had an affair with Fanny. To the extent that he would not recant his words at the threat of ex-communication. How would Oliver not know about the marriage, if there had been one?
In 1838, Oliver Cowdery wrote his brother Warren that he and Joseph Smith:
had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.Rough Stone Rolling, p.323
LDS historian, Richard Bushman
Oliver wasn’t bluffing either, as he was excommunicated for “slander” against Joseph among other things. Though it’s important to note that Joseph never denies his sexual relations with Fanny, he only clarifies that it wasn’t adultery–implying that he considered himself outside the normal law, which could imply he was married to her.
“2nd, For seeking to destroying the character of President Joseph Smith jr, by falsly insinuating that he was guilty of adultry &c.”
David Patten reported that Oliver privately told him about an “adultery scrape,” which Joseph had supposedly “confessed to Emma.” Thomas Marsh testified that Oliver was once asked if Joseph “had ever confessed to him that he was guilty of adultery,” to which Oliver had answered “no,” but only after “a considerable winking, &c,” apparently thereby insinuating (incorrectly) that it was actually true. Joseph then asked Marsh “if he [Oliver] ever told him that he [Joseph] confessed to any body,” to which Marsh answered, “no.” Hence, charge 2 was found to be sustained regarding Oliver having made false insinuations.
At that point in the trial, Joseph Smith himself took the witness stand. He “testifie[d] that Oliver Cowdery had been his bosom friend, therefore he intrusted him with many things. He [Joseph] then gave a history respecting the girl business,” which must have satisfied the court, in some credible way, that whatever had gone on between Joseph and Fanny Alger (Emma’s domestic girl, who left Kirtland in 1836) was not to be seen as unacceptable. Otherwise, the court would not have found Oliver guilty of charge 2.Book of Mormon Central / KnoWhy
Why Was Oliver Cowdery Excommunicated from the Church?
Joseph’s Motivation for Polygamy
Perhaps he confused adultery with rape and considered since he had Fanny’s consent (and her parents) things were A-OK. Perhaps this is when the idea of plural marriage is born into his mind. He can technically be clean as a whistle and have all the women he can get his hands on. He likely read into polygamy found in the old testament. Maybe he felt it was a special privilege for prophets. Abraham after all was allowed to have his wife, Sarah, and her maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine. Abraham’s grandson Jacob had multiple wives, Rachel and Leah, who were sisters, plus his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. Joseph may have given particular attention to Jacob’s story, as he became Israel and was the father of the eponymous Joseph in the sculptures.
Many important figures had more than one wife, such as in the instances of Esau (Gen 26:34; 28:6-9), Jacob (Gen 29:15-28), Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1-8), David (1 Samuel 25:39-44; 2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13-16), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3).https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy_in_Christianity
Joseph Smith, through his studying the old testament, and experiencing his own sexual desires and abilities to tell stories, wove plural marriage into his personal religion. He didn’t want to call it polygamy though, since that was illegal. Though, perhaps he knew it still wouldn’t be accepted, so he needed to keep it a secret. It seems likely these ideas came to him as he tried to validate his actions with Fanny, it may have taken years to arrive at the point where he could work the solution into revelation and then retroactively exonerate himself with stories of angels. That seems the most likely explanation. That or God commanded him through this unnamed angelic messenger to commit adultery against his will and at the threat of destruction, and that he must keep it a secret from everyone he could.
A detailed timeline exists here, but here is a summary:
ChronologyPlural Marriage Study Guide, josephsmithspolygamy.org
1831 – Revelation to Joseph Smith indicating that Old Testament polygamy as practiced by Abraham and Jacob was not sinful.
1834 – (Jul) Account of an angel visiting Joseph commanding him to restore the practice of plural marriage.
1835–1836 – A plural marriage ceremony joining Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger for time-only is performed by Levi Hancock using priesthood authority.
1836 – (Jun) People who learn of the ceremony from Fanny believe it is a genuine plural marriage. But Emma and Oliver Cowdery, who learn of it from Joseph, consider it adultery. Fanny is sent away.
1836–1841 – No plural marriage activity.
The Transaction in the Barn
The marriage ceremony performed by Levi Hancock has no record and the source from the Gosepl Topic Essay is a second-hand source. It seems a stretch to call it reliable, especially when the same essay omits so many other details of the encounter that have a first-hand witness. Sources referring to the “transaction” in the barn or Oliver’s statement referring to the “dirty, nasty, filthy affair”. These sources are just not as faith-promoting and do not fit into the current narrative the church is promoting.
Here’s one such source of a first-hand conversation between William McLellin and Emma Smith in 1847, which account is accepted by both LDS and non-LDS historians. It describes how Emma discovered her husband’s affair with Fanny Alger:
William E. McLellin, M.D.One night she [Emma] missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She 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.
Letter to President Joseph Smith [III] Independence, Mo., July 1872
Experimenting with AI art generation based on this situation gives us some PG-rated imagery to put to what Emma may have seen as she looked through the crack in the barn and saw the “celestializing” “transaction”. With the prompt similar to “Through a hole in a wall, Joseph Smith embracing a teenage housemaid”:
It is a church-confirmed fact of history that Joseph Smith secretly had over 30 plural wives before May 1844 when he denied that he was ever a polygamist as is recorded in the official History of the Church. Again, here he seems to find a loophole to claim innocence where he claims there is no adultery committed and he is innocent.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH, VOL. 6, CHAPTER 19, P.411…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.
No matter what the AI-generated artwork may say, Fanny Alger was silent on the subject. She claims it was her own business (hers and Joseph’s) and no one else. After Joseph Smith’s death, Fanny Alger’s brother asked her about the relationship.
“That is all a matter of my own. And I have nothing to communicate.”Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review
One of Brigham Young’s wives (an escapee) even wrote her life story and mentioned her recollections of Fanny Alger. It details the whole incident when Emma finds them in the barn, and becomes so upset Joseph must leave and spend the night elsewhere. He seeks help from Oliver Cowdery who comes to help settle the matter and Emma refuses to allow Fanny to stay with them any longer.
Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, 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 in the night…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…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…The scribe was a worthy servant of his master. He was at the time residing with a certain young woman, and at the same time he had a wife living…The worthy couple—the Prophet and his scribe—were sorely perplexed what to do with the girl, since Emma refused decidedly to allow her to remain in her house; but after some consultation, my mother offered to take her until she could be sent to her relatives. Although her parents were living, they considered it the highest honor to have their daughter adopted into the Prophet’s family, and her mother [Clarissa Hancock Alger] has always claimed that she was sealed to Joseph at that time.Anne Eliza Young, Escaped Wife of Brigham Young
Wife No. 19, or, the Story of a Life in Bondage. Anne Eliza Young. 1876
Rough Stone Rolling
Richard Bushman’s book Rough Stone Rolling contains a few pages which tell the story particularly well, even though he skews to faith-promoting sources and interpretations and even dates:
There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835. Was he also an adulterer? In an angry letter written in 1838, Oliver Cowdery referred to the “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger.” What did that mean? Had Joseph been involved in an illicit affair? Some of his critics tried to depict him as a libertine going back to the New York years. One of Emma’s cousins by marriage, Levi Lewis, said Martin Harris spoke of Joseph’s attempt to seduce Elizabeth Winters, a friend of Emma in Harmony. But the reports are tenuous. Harris said nothing of the event in his many descriptions of Joseph, nor did Winters herself when interviewed much later.” Considering how eager the Palmyra neighbors were to besmirch Joseph’ character, their minimal mention of moral lapses suggests libertinism was not part of his New York reputation. In Kirtland, the situation was more complicated.
Alger was fourteen when her family joined the Church in Mayfield, near Kirtland, in 1830. In 1836, after a time as a serving girl in the Smith household, she left Kirtland and soon married. Between those two dates, perhaps as early as 1831, she and Joseph were reportedly involved, but conflicting accounts make it difficult to establish the facts—much less to understand Joseph’s thoughts. Was he a blackguard covering his lusts with religious pretensions, or a prophet doggedly adhering to instructions from heaven, or something in between?
Rumors of Mormon sexual license were circulating by 1835, when an “Article on Marriage” published in the Doctrine and Covenants said that Church members had been “reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy.” Coming from faithful Mormons, this evidence of marital irregularities cannot be ignored, but neither can it be taken at face value. From the Minster Anabaptists of the sixteenth century to the camp meetings of the nineteenth, critics expected sexual improprieties from religious enthusiasts. Marital experiments by contemporary radical sects increased the suspicions.” John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, concluded that “there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restricted by law, than why eating and drinking should be.” With old barriers coming down, people were on the lookout for sexual aberrations. What, if anything, lay behind the accusations of the Mormons is uncertain. They were apparently on edge themselves; the seventies resolved to expel any of
their members guilty of polygamy.
No one intimated in 1835 that Joseph’s actions caused the rumors. The sources written before 1839 indicate that most Church leaders knew nothing of a possible marriage. What they did know is suggested by the minutes of Oliver Cowdery’s excommunication trial before the Far West High Council in April 1838, one of the few contemporaneous sources. Cowdery, long Joseph’s friend and associate in visions, was a casualty of the bad times. In 1838, he was charged with “secking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith Jr by falsly insinuating that he was guilty of adultry.” Fanny Alger’s name was never mentioned, but doubtless she was the woman in question.
The Far West court did not accuse Joseph of being involved with Alger. Some councilors had heard the rumors, but concluded they were untrue. They were concerned only with Cowdery’ insinuations. He was on trial for false accusations, not Joseph for adultery. David Patten, an apostle, “went to Oliver Cowdery to enquire of him if a certain story was true respecting J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl, when he turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty.” Thomas Marsh, another apostle, reported a similar experience. “Oliver Cowdery 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.” George Harris testified that in conversation between Cowdery and Joseph the previous November, Cowdery “seemed to insinuate that Joseph Smith Jr was guilty of adultery.” Eventually the court concluded that Cowdery had made false accusations, and cut him off from the Church.”
Cowdery denied that he had lied about Joseph and Alger. Cowdery had heard the accusations against him when he wrote to Joseph in January 1838. “I learn from Kirtland, by the last letters, that you have publickly said, that when vou were here I confessed to you that I had willfully lied about you.” He demanded that Joseph retract the statement. In a letter to his brother Warren, Cowdery insisted he would never dishonor the family name by lying about anything, much less about the Smiths, whom he had always defended. In his conversations with Joseph, Cowdery asserted, “in every instance, I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true,” meaning he believed Joseph did have an affair. His insinuations were not lies but the truth as he understood it.
Cowdery and Joseph aired their differences at a meeting in November 1837 where Joseph did not deny his relationship with Alger, but contended that he had never confessed to adultery. Cowdery apparently had said otherwise, but backed down at the November meeting. When the question was put to Cowdery “if he [Joseph] had ever acknowledged to him that he was guilty of such a thing . . . he answered No.” That was all Joseph wanted: an admission that he had not termed the Alger affair adulterous. As Cowdery told his brother, “just before leaving, he [Joseph] wanted to drop every past thing, in which had been a difficulty or difference—he called witnesses to the fact, gave me his hand in their presence, and I might have supposed of an honest man, calculated to say nothing of former matters.”
These scraps of testimony recorded within a few years of the Alger business show how differently the various parties understood events. In the contemporancous documents, only one person, Cowdery, believed that Joseph had had an affair with Fanny Alger. Others may have heard the rumors, but none joined Cowdery in making accusations.'” David Patten, who made inquiries in Kirtland, concluded the rumors were untrue. No one proposed to put Joseph on trial for adultery. Only Cowdery, who was leaving the Church, asserted Joseph’s involvement. On his part, Joseph never denied a relationship with Alger, but insisted it was not adulterous. He wanted it on record that he had never confessed to such a sin. Presumably, he felt innocent because he had married Alger.
After the Far West council excommunicated Cowdery, Alger disappears from the Mormon historical record for a quarter of a century. Her story was recorded as many as sixty years later by witnesses who had strong reason to take sides.” Surprisingly, they all agree that Joseph married Fanny Alger as a plural wife. Ann Eliza Webb Young, the notorious divorced wife of Brigham Young who toured the country lecturing against the Mormons, thought the relationship was scandalous but reported that Fanny’s parents “considered it the highest honor to have their daughter adopted into the Prophets family, and her mother has always claimed that [Fanny] was sealed to Joseph at that time.” Ann Eliza’s father, Chauncey Webb, who reportedly took Alger in when Emma learned of the marriage, said Joseph “was secretly to Fanny Alger,” Mormon language for marriage.
On the believers’ side, Mosiah Hancock wrote in the 1890s about Joseph engaging Levi Hancock, Mosiah’s father, to ask Alger’s parents for permission to marry. Levi Hancock was Alger’s uncle and an appropriate go-between. He talked with Alger’s father, then her mother, and finally to Fanny herself, and all three consented. As in many subsequent plural marriages, Joseph did not steal away the prospective bride. He approached the parents first to ask for their daughters hand. Hancock performed the ceremony, repeating words Joseph dictated to him. The whole process was formal and, in a peculiar way, old-fashioned.”Rough Stone Rolling, p.323-325
LDS historian, Richard Bushman
LDS historian, Richard Bushman
LDS historian, Richard Bushman
LDS historian, Richard Bushman