Question: What did William McLellin say about Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger's relationship?

Question: What did William McLellin say about Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger's relationship?

William McLellin said that he discussed Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger during a visit with Emma in 1847

With a lone exception, there is no account after Joseph’s death of Emma admitting Joseph’s plural marriages in any source.[1] The reported exception is recorded in a newspaper article and two letters written by excommunicated Latter-day Saint apostle William E. McLellin.[2] McLellin addressed the letters to Emma’s son, Joseph Smith III. The former apostle claimed to have visited Emma in 1847 and to have discussed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger.[3]

McLellin: Letter No. 1—1861: McLellin tells Joseph Smith III to ask his mother Emma about his father's practice of polygamy

McLellin’s first letter to Joseph Smith III arrived soon after he assumed the duties of RLDS Church president on 6 April 1860. Joseph Smith III began his tenure as president by declaring that his father could never have been involved with plural marriage. When McLellin heard of his stance, he wrote the new leader:

I do not wish to say hard things to You of your Father, but Joseph, if You will only go to your own dear mother, she can tell You that he believed in Polygamy and practiced it long before his violent death! That he delivered a revelation sanctioning, regulating, and establishing it. . . . Your Mother told me these items when I was in Nauvoo. I am not dealing in fictions, nor in ill founded slanders.

McLellin wanted Joseph III to confront Emma and seemed to hope he would learn the truth from her.

McLellin: Letter No. 2—July 1872: McLellin reports that he heard story that he had heard about Joseph and Fanny Alger in a barn

Eleven years later, McLellin wrote Joseph Smith III a second letter, asserted Joseph’s polygamous teachings, and urged him to ask his “own dear Mother for the truth.” McLellin claimed that Emma would confirm his story, “if you ask her,” for “Can you dispute your dear Mother?” To believe otherwise, insisted the former apostle, “I would have to believe your Mother a liar, and that would be hard for me to do, considering my acquaintance with her.”

McLellin recounted a story that he attributed to Frederick G. Williams, an excommunicated member of the First Presidency. McLellin claimed that Joseph had been caught in immoral behavior with a “Miss Hill” in late 1832. According to McLellin, Emma called Williams, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon to help settle the matter. McLellin insists that “she told me this story was true!!”

McLellin also reported a tale he had heard about Joseph and Fanny Alger. He claimed that Fanny and Joseph were in the barn and Emma “looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.” In this letter, McLellin upped the ante, adding disturbing details that he claims Emma verified in 1847. He wanted Joseph III to confront his mother about at least two women with whom he claims the Prophet was involved.

McLellin: Newspaper—October 1875: McLellin claims that he heard that Emma saw Joseph and Fanny in the barn

McLellin also repeated his charges to a newspaper reporter who claimed that McLellin described how “[t]he ‘sealing’ took place in a barn on the hay mow, and was witnessed by Mrs. Smith through a crack in the door! . . . Long afterwards when he visited Mrs. Emma Smith . . . she then and there declared on her honor that it was a fact—‘saw it with her own eyes.’”

It is interesting that McLellin’s account here refers to the Fanny Alger incident as “where the first well authenticated case of polygamy took place.” Gone is McLellin’s claim that a “Miss Hill” existed and caused problems prior to Fanny. “Miss Hill” is otherwise unmentioned in either friendly or hostile sources, and some authors—like G. D. Smith—try to paper over this discrepancy by suggesting that McLellin got confused in his “old age” and mistook “Fanny Hill” in John Cleland’s 1749 novel for “Fanny Alger.” This is unpersuasive since McLellin tells both stories in the 1872 letter. His accounts are mutually contradictory on this point.

This discrepancy calls McLellin’s accuracy into question. In 1872 he told Joseph Smith III that Emma had confirmed both accounts, but in 1875 he described the second account as “the first well authenticated case.” One suspects that McLellin’s authentication may be lacking overall. McLellin is a late, second- or thirdhand, antagonistic witness whose story seems to vary in the telling. Can anything else help us assess other parts of the story?

McLellin insisted that Emma confirmed these stories in 1847, yet there is no record of Emma ever acknowledging that Joseph ever practiced polygamy

McLellin insisted that Emma Smith confirmed these tales in 1847. Yet this is a strange occurrence—there is virtually no other record of Emma admitting, following Joseph’s death, that he even taught plural marriage. Emma and Joseph Smith III would go to their graves denying that Joseph had anything to do with the practice. But we are expected to believe that she confirmed these events to McLellin, who had no personal knowledge of them but was misled, merely repeating secondhand gossip. Emma did more (in McLellin’s retelling) than confirm that Joseph practiced plural marriage—she verified a version of events that would have been intensely shameful for her personally and that sullied her dead husband’s memory.

Was McLellin the sort of man to whom she would have unburdened herself? To begin to answer this, we must briefly revisit McLellin’s history in and out of the church. McLellin was baptized 20 August 1831 and was ordained an elder four days later. On 25 October he received a revelation via Joseph Smith in which he was warned: “Commit not adultery—a temptation with which thou hast been troubled.” McLellin did not take this advice and was excommunicated in December 1832 for spending time with “a certain harlot” while on a mission.

Rebaptized in 1833, he was ordained an apostle on 15 February 1835. His problems continued. He was disfellowshipped in 1835 for writing a letter that “cast . . . censure upon the [first] presidency.” Reinstated on 25 September 1835, he attended the Kirtland Temple dedication but had lost confidence in the church leadership by August 1836. At his 11 May 1838 excommunication hearing, “he said he had no confidence in the presidency of the Church; consequently, he had quit praying and keeping the commandments of the Lord, and indulged himself in his sinful lusts. It was from what he had heard that he believed the presidency had got out of the way, and not from anything that he had seen himself.”

It seems that McLellin had difficulty with adulterous behavior. He also frequently disagreed with church leaders and did not hesitate to criticize them publicly. His penchant for believing and acting on secondhand information—as in the report about “Miss Hill” from Frederick G. Williams—was already apparent, since he attacked the First Presidency for what he had heard, not for what he personally had witnessed.

McLellin’s later life found him bouncing from one Mormon splinter group to another. He gave early support to James J. Strang but later distanced himself when it became clear that he would not get a leadership position. In a public debate with Strang, McLellin denied ever having been friendly with Strang or well-disposed toward his claims. In response, Strang produced three letters written by McLellin, which he proceeded to read. The letters “ended the debate quickly, and McLellin never mentioned these matters again, even in his own publications. . . . In their debate Strang exploited the content of those letters to demonstrate that McLellin’s verbal and other published statements were at total variance with the reality suggested in the letters.” Clearly, then, McLellin was perfectly willing to fib to others in furtherance of his religious goals. He lied about conversations he had had with Strang only to have his own letters prove his duplicity.


  1. D. Michael Quinn says that this account was “her only post-1844 admission of her husband’s polygamous arrangements.” As will be seen, I believe Quinn (like G. D. Smith) gives it far too much credence. See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), 147. Quinn also neglects to mention a possible second reference to Joseph’s marriages by Emma. “Joseph Coolidge, onetime executor of Joseph [Smith]’s estate, told Joseph F. Smith that Emma ‘remarked to him that Joseph had abandoned plurality of wives before his death.’ Smith said that Coolidge told her she was wrong. ‘She insisted that he had, Coolidge insisted that he . . . knew better.’ Coolidge told Joseph F. Smith that at this news Emma responded, ‘[Then] he was worthy of the death he died!’” This is a thirdhand source at best; if accurate it suggests that Emma was admitting that she knew of Joseph’s practice, even if she believed he had eventually discontinued it. Joseph F. Smith interview with Joseph W. Coolidge, Joseph F. Smith diary, 28 August 1870; cited in Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 292. See also Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 238.
  2. McLellin told Joseph Smith III that it happened “at your birth,” that is, around 6 November 1832.
  3. In a disturbing example of failing to adequately characterize a source, Newell and Avery describe McLellin as “a member of the Twelve [who] wrote in an 1872 letter” about Fanny. These authors fail to inform the reader that McLellin was excommunicated for apostasy and immoral behavior and had not been an apostle for more than thirty years. See Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 65.