Part 24: CES Letter Polygamy & Polyandry Questions [Section E]
by Sarah Allen
Today, we’re talking about Fanny Alger, the nature of her relationship with Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery’s reaction to the whole thing, William McLellin, his relationship with the Church and with Emma Smith specifically, and maybe more. It’s a lot to cover, so I’m just going to start without a prolonged introduction.
An illegal marriage to Fanny Alger, which was described by Oliver Cowdery as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323
All plural marriages for time or time and eternity performed in Kirtland and Nauvoo were illegal from a secular stance, so I’m not sure why Runnells is singling out this one as being so. As the Church’s essay on Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo states:
Polygamy had been permitted for millennia in many cultures and religions, but, with few exceptions, was rejected in Western cultures. In Joseph Smith’s time, monogamy was the only legal form of marriage in the United States. Joseph knew the practice of plural marriage would stir up public ire. After receiving the commandment, he taught a few associates about it, but he did not spread this teaching widely in the 1830s.
The Algers were some of those associates. We don’t know much at all about Joseph’s relationship with Fanny, the daughter who worked in the Smith home, and most of what we do know is from later accounts. Eliza R. Snow, who was well-acquainted with Fanny and the Smith family, listed her among Joseph’s plural wives for Andrew Jenson’s affidavits, so some people were directly aware of the union. However, most of what we have is rumors, innuendo, and other second- or third-hand sources. Many of those accounts are contradictory as well, which means there is very, very little we actually know and most everything else is just guesswork. We have to weigh the sources and decide which ones we think are the most trustworthy.
We aren’t even sure exactly when the marriage would have taken place, though the best estimate seems to be late 1835 or early 1836. Eliza moved in with the Smiths in the spring of 1836 and was there when the situation blew up, and we know it was a short-lived relationship, so the marriage would have had to happen around that time as well. If Emma did in fact not know about it, they wouldn’t have been able to hide it from her for very long when they were all living in the same house together. The sealing power was also restored to the Earth on April 3, 1836, so it’s possible this was a sealing, maybe even the very first one of this dispensation. More likely, however, it was a marriage for time only done through the same Priesthood authority as other marriages Joseph performed in Kirtland.
Though the revelation now known as D&C 132 was written down in 1843, Joseph was aware that plural marriage would be commanded in the Church as early as 1831. Mary Elizabeth Rollins stated that Joseph was visited by the angel commanding him to practice polygamy three times between 1834 and 1842, so it seems the Fanny Alger marriage was an attempt to try to live that law.
It’s unclear what Emma knew about this commandment before 1843, but as we discussed last week, there’s evidence that Joseph tried to publicly teach the practice in 1841 until Emma and other women in the congregation became upset and he backed off.
It’s incredibly unlikely to me that he would have jumped into a marriage with Fanny without at least broaching the subject of the commandment to Emma first or warning her that it was coming, but it’s possible. She would sometimes give her consent to plural marriages and then turn around and revoke it after it was done, however, so it’s also possible that happened again here with Fanny. We simply don’t know. It’s hard to be sure what Emma knew and when she may have known it because she lied about it so often. It was a very painful subject for her and she pretended none of it ever happened.
Brian Hales acknowledges this uncertainty:
Several incidents could have prompted Joseph Smith to consider Old Testament polygamy and how it might relate to the “restoration of all things.” It is probable that he knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage could in some circumstances be approved by God. Yet, it does not appear he shared these early thoughts with Emma. Perhaps he did try, only to witness her severe disapproval.
One very real possibility is that Emma always considered plural marriage as adultery or something like it, so it was difficult for her to see it as anything else. Oliver Cowdery was of a similar opinion, which we’ll talk about later, and it looks like a strong possibility that Emma agreed with him. One of Joseph’s scribes, William Clayton, recorded in his journal on June 23, 1843 the following entry:
[June 23, 1843. Friday] This A.M. President Joseph took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. Said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly and badly since I came…and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things. She thought that if he would indulge himself she would too. He cautioned me very kindly for which I felt thankful. …
The phrase “indulge himself” is very telling. When we talk about indulging in something, it’s usually something we shouldn’t often partake in, whether it’s a guilty pleasure, or a vice, or sweet treats we all know we shouldn’t have too many of, or whatever. So, it sounds like Joseph was doing something she thought he shouldn’t, or should at least do sparingly. And since this was around the time we know for certain that Emma was aware of plural marriage, and since that was the main conflict in their own marriage, it takes on an interesting twist. Emma participated in four sealings in May of 1843 that we know of, between Joseph and the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence sisters. Sometime later that year, Emma threw the Partridge sisters both out of the house over the matter. About this, Emily stated:
Emma had consented to give Joseph two wives if he would let her choose them for him, and … she choose Eliza and myself. … I do not know why she gave us to him unless she thought we were where she could watch us better than some others, [who lived] outside of the house.
[After the ceremony] she wanted us immediately divorced, and she seemed to think that she only had to say the word, and it was done. But we thought different. We looked upon the covenants we had made as sacred. She afterwards gave Sarah and Maria Lawrence to him, and they lived in the house as his wives. I knew this; but my sister and I were cast off.
And in another statement also made by Emily, it says:
Emma was present [at the sealing of Emily and Eliza]. She gave her free and full consent. She had always up to this time, been very kind to me and my sister Eliza, who was also married to the Prophet Joseph Smith with Emma’s consent; but ever after she was our enemy. She used every means in her power to injure us in the eyes of her husband, and before strangers, and in consequence of her abuse we were obliged to leave the city to gratify her, but things were overruled otherwise, and we remained in Nauvoo. My sister Eliza found a home with the family of Brother Joseph Coolidge, and I went to live with Sister Sylvia Lyons. She was a good woman, and one of the Lord’s chosen few.
Emma seems to have been very jealous of Joseph’s relationships with his other wives, which is understandable. This jealousy would apparently flare up after Joseph spent the night with one of them instead of with her, according to other comments of Emily’s, or whenever she thought they were becoming too close. Eliza R. Snow refers to these instances as Emma making a “fuss” on the affidavit she gave to Andrew Jenson, and there are similar comments from others too; her temper over Joseph’s plural marriages was well-known in the inner circle.
Moreover, Clayton’s journal entry was dated only a month after the sealings, while the pain would have still been fresh in Emma’s mind and heart. Because of all of this, it sounds to me like she’s describing what she considers to be infidelity, Joseph indulging himself with other women and threatening to do the same to him in retaliation—possibly with William Clayton, judging by Emma wanting to “lay a snare” for him. The “me” in question in that comment could have been Joseph, but the context and the way William says “he” every other time he’s talking about Joseph suggest otherwise.
If Emma viewed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger the same way as she viewed the Nauvoo marriages, as something akin to adultery rather than a plural marriage regardless of the ordinance, a lot of the drama surrounding this marriage makes sense. So does Joseph’s putting off the practice for years afterward. But this is mostly just speculation. We really don’t know much of what Emma knew or thought or believed about any of this.
The essay on Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo only says this about the matter:
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.
So, what do we know for certain? The following information comes from Brian Hales’s website and the Church history article on Fanny unless otherwise cited:
Fanny was born in September, 1816, and was one of 10 children in the Alger family. This would put her age at about 19 during her marriage to Joseph. She went to work for the Smith family sometime after their prior servant, Mary Johnson, died in 1833, likely between the years of 1834-1836. Joseph entered into a polygamous marriage with her in late 1835 or early 1836 in a ceremony performed by family friend Levi Hancock, with the Alger family’s approval and support. After some kind of argument with Emma over the matter, which may have involved Oliver Cowdery, Fanny left the Smith home and stayed with Chauncy and Eliza Webb for a few weeks until she join the rest of her family in another part of Ohio. The Webb family later consistently described her union with Joseph as a sealing. Upon her departure from the Smith home, Joseph and Fanny appear to have split with the assurance that their marriage was over, one of those “folk divorces” mentioned a few weeks ago.
In September of 1836, Fanny and her family began a move to Missouri, and two months later, while at a stopover in Indiana, Fanny married Solomon Custer. Custer was not a Latter-day Saint, and Fanny seems to have left the Church behind entirely at this point. She and a brother stayed there in Indiana while the rest of the family moved on to Missouri, and later Nauvoo, and then later headed West with the rest of the Saints. Fanny and Solomon had nine children, only two of whom were still living when Fanny died in 1889. At one point late in life when she was asked about Joseph, she said, “That is all a matter of my own, and I have nothing to communicate.”
In approximately June of 1836 is when the entire situation blew up and became somewhat public knowledge. The primary source for a lot of this is William McLellin. Just like background information on William Law helps put the Expositor situation in context, background information on William McLellin helps put these stories in context.
Like a lot of early notable critics of the Church, McLellin started off as a prominent member, one of the original Apostles of this dispensation. He joined the Church in 1831, and soon after, received a revelation on his behalf that is now D&C 66. In verse 10 of that revelation, McLellin is counseled to avoid committing adultery, something that he was tempted by. This will come into play soon. Later that same year, he was one of those complaining about the language of the revelations now found in the Doctrine and Covenants. McLellin was the one the Lord challenged to write a better revelation than the ones He gave, and he couldn’t, with Joseph saying, “William E. M’Lellin, as the wisest man in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord’s but failed.”
He was excommunicated in December of 1832 because, while he was on a mission for the Church, he got a little too friendly with ‘a certain harlot,’ but was restored to full fellowship in 1833. In February of 1835, he was called as an Apostle. By that summer, he was disfellowshipped again for writing a letter rebuking the Presidency of the Church. After repenting he was re-fellowshipped, only to write a letter resigning his membership in August of 1836 because he was disappointed in the endowment that started up in the Kirtland temple that same year. He was sustained again to the Quorum of the Twelve in September, 1837, and then in November of that same year, joined the Missouri State Militia. On May 11, 1838, he was excommunicated for the second and final time after publicly opposing the Church leadership.
If you all got whiplash from that summary, you’re not alone. His constant comings and goings raised some eyebrows with the Church membership at the time and led to a lack of trust. That trust was shattered completely when McLellin joined in the mob persecutions, robbing and threatening his former friends.
While Joseph was in Liberty Jail, McLellin and some of his buddies broke into the Smith home and stable and robbed them of everything they had, including the bedsheets:
Following his excommunication, McLellin played an active role in mobbing and robbing the Saints. Joseph was taken to Liberty Jail, and Emma returned home to find that she had been robbed of everything. A contemporary journal records that McLellin “went into brother Joseph’s house and commenced searching over his things … [and] took all his [jewelry] out of Joseph’s box and took a lot of his cloths [sic] and in fact, plundered the house and took the things off.” When Emma asked McLellin why he did this, McLellin replied, “Because I can.” This theft affected Emma profoundly. She received word that Joseph was suffering greatly from the cold in Liberty Jail, and he asked her to bring quilts and bedding. “Sister Emma cried and said that they had taken all of her bed cloths [sic] except one quilt and blanket and what could she do?” Emma sought legal redress but recovered nothing.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. McLellin also went to where Joseph was being held in Richmond and tried to strike up a bargain with the sheriff:
While Joseph was in prison at Richmond, Missouri, McLellin, who was a large and active man, went to the sheriff and asked for the privilege of flogging the Prophet. Permission was granted on condition that Joseph would fight. The sheriff made known to Joseph McLellin’s earnest request, to which Joseph consented, if his irons were taken off. McLellin then refused to fight unless he could have a club, to which Joseph was perfectly willing; but the sheriff would not allow them to fight on such unequal terms.
So, that Emma would agree to share intimate details with McLellin in 1847, details that she denied to everyone else in her life for as long as she lived, as he claimed she did needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. What were those details? He gave us two accounts.
As his story goes, he went to interview Emma in 1847, and while she wouldn’t volunteer anything, she agreed to confirm or deny rumors he’d heard over the years. His first statement regarding the Fanny Alger situation was as follows:
[O]ne night she [Emma Smith] 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.
This is the infamous statement that you see quoted all over the place, implying that Emma saw Joseph and Fanny being intimate in the barn. This is the same quote Jeremy Runnells gives in the Letter.
William McLellin reported a conversation he had with Emma Smith in 1847, which account is accepted by both LDS and non-LDS historians, describing how Emma discovered her husband’s affair with Fanny Alger:
And he then repeats the same statement as given above. There are a few things to point out here before moving on. First of all, while this account is accepted by some LDS and non-LDS historians as true, it’s rejected by others. Second, it was not Joseph’s “affair” with Fanny Alger, it was his marriage. Joseph considered it a marriage, Fanny and her family considered it a marriage, Eliza Snow considered it a marriage, the Hancocks and the Webbs considered it a marriage, etc. Third, this is not the only version of the story McLellin told. The second recounting was similar, but the wording is different and it’s a rather telling difference:
He [McLellin] was in the vicinity during all the Mormon troubles in Northern Missouri, and grieved heavily over the suffering of his former brethren. 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! The Doctor was so distressed about this case, (it created some scandal at the time among the Saints,) that long afterwards when he visited Mrs. Emma Smith at Nauvoo, he charged her as she hoped for salvation to tell him the truth about it. And she then and there declared on her honor that it was a fact—“saw it with her own eyes.”
In one case, it’s the “transaction” Emma sees, whatever that means, but in the other, it’s the “sealing” that she sees. These accounts might be referring to the same thing here, or they might be implying two different things depending on the audience. He uses a vague enough word in the first account that he could be talking about anything. Emma also might not have seen anything. Remember, this man robbed her of everything she owned and tried to flog her husband and beat him with a club, just because “he could.” Is that someone she’s likely to confide her deepest pain to? Maybe she’d forgiven him in the intervening years; maybe she hadn’t. I don’t know if this story is true or not. As a source, I don’t think he’s very credible because of his history with the Smiths and his constant flip-flopping over the Gospel, but maybe he’s telling the truth. I don’t know, and if he is, I don’t know which of these stories is the more accurate one.
In any event, Emma seems to have gotten upset over something regarding Joseph’s relationship with Fanny. Whether she saw them kissing, or being intimate, or being sealed, or Joseph told her for the first time, or she knew in advance but seeing it in reality upset her, it just isn’t clear. One source, one of the first major anti-Mormon books by a man named Wilhelm Wyl, reports Chauncy Webb as saying that Fanny was visibly pregnant and that’s what set Emma off. Again, though, there’s no other evidence of that. Webb was in a position to know, as Fanny did stay with him and his wife after Emma threw her out, but nobody else who knew them at all reports seeing Fanny pregnant, and if she was showing, people would have noticed. Eliza Snow, who was living in the house in a position to know exactly what happened—and who was not shy about giving her opinion—never said a word about Fanny being pregnant. Neither did anyone else but Chauncy Webb. There are also no records at all of her having a baby or a miscarriage prior to about a year and a half after her marriage to Solomon Custer. The purported baby that Fawn Brodie believed might be the result of this pregnancy was shown not to be Joseph’s. It’s possible there was a miscarriage or a baby who died in infancy, but there simply isn’t any evidence of that beyond Webb’s claim.
LDS polygamy apologists further discuss Emma’s disturbing discovery and the aftermath here.
Jeremy’s linked source on this is one of the Brian Hales pages on Fanny that I’ve already linked above. There is no discussion between “LDS polygamy apologists.” It’s one man giving a brief overview of the pertinent details.
Anyway, one of the more interesting aspects of all of this, in my opinion, is Oliver’s reaction to it all. During the commotion, one account has Joseph sending for Oliver to help him calm Emma down. Whether that actually happened or not it was the wrong move to make, as Oliver sided with Emma. The Fanny Alger situation seems to be the kick-off point for Oliver’s big break with Joseph.
There were a few rumors circulating back in the day that Oliver had been super gung-ho over plural marriage and dove into the practice before it was sanctioned, or that he committed adultery because he couldn’t wait to get started before Joseph agreed the time was right. If you know anything at all about Oliver Cowdery beyond what we learn in Sunday School, though, you know that this is patently absurd. Oliver was never on board with polygamy and he likely viewed it as an immoral sin until the day he died, even after he rejoined the Church. There is no real evidence backing up those claims and plenty showing that he strongly disagreed with the practice. On July 24, 1846—just four years before his death on March 3, 1850 and two years before rejoining the Church on November 12, 1848—he responded to a letter from his sister regarding plural marriage among the Saints with this comment:
I can hardly think it possible that you have written us the truth—that though there may be individuals who are guilty of the iniquities spoken of—yet no such practice can be preached or adhered to as a public doctrine. Such may do for the followers of Mohamet; it may have done some thousands of years ago; but no people professing to be governed by the pure and holy principles of the Lord Jesus can hold up their heads before the world at this distance of time, and be guilty of such folly—such wrong— such abomination.
I can’t imagine that his opinion would have changed so much in two years that he openly embraced the practice, nor do I think that he was ready to jump the gun and dive in before the practice had been officially sanctioned. By almost all accounts, this was something Oliver was repulsed by, just like a lot of people were. He simply could not see it as being divinely sanctioned or commanded. In his mind, it was a sin, an “abomination.”
At the very most, maybe the account of Oliver getting close to another young woman after proposing to someone else has some truth to it, but Oliver was still single at the time. He was allowed to hesitate, to change his mind, albeit temporarily, and to question whether he’d made the right decision. If that’s the “transgression” he was called out for in that linked article above, he made a full confession to the parties involved and repented before he married. Beyond that, there are no details given of that transgression or repentance, so it truly could have been anything.
In a draft of a paper that I can’t find a published version of, Don Bradley shares his thoughts on the matter. It’s possible I can’t find the published version because the title has changed so if anyone else can find it, a link would be appreciated. I’m not finding it with text searches, but I may be choosing the wrong phrases. I don’t agree with his blanket acceptance that Fanny must have been pregnant (unless he’s seen something I haven’t, I don’t think the evidence is strong enough to assert that with any degree of certainty), but I agree wholeheartedly with his characterization of Oliver:
Even the vehement oral accusations and letter by Cowdery, for instance, fall short of stating that Smith’s behavior constituted adultery. In his trial Cowdery was charged with “insinuating” that Smith’s relationship with Alger was adulterous, accused of this in the testimony, and convicted of making insinuations rather than assertions that Smith had committed adultery. Though said to have given his verbal answer with incongruous body language, he stated “no” when asked pointblank if Smith’s confessions to him amounted to an admission of adultery. There is nothing to indicate that “adultery” was his term. This reluctance to use the term “adultery” seems out of line with his emphatic condemnation of Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy” behavior and his insistence that his reports had been “strictly true” and “never deserted from the truth of the matter.”
Because Cowdery was alienated from Joseph Smith at the time of his trial and was being expelled from the church, it is not likely that the best construction was being placed on his words and actions. And Cowdery was not in attendance at his trial, rendering him unable to defend himself from exaggeration and misunderstanding. The wrong he saw in Smith might thus have not been adultery, but polygamy.
Evidence coincident with Cowdery’s return to the church eight years later indicates his revulsion to polygamy and his incredulity that it would be allowed as a religious practice. For Cowdery, polygamy was a sexual sin in itself, and perhaps arguably constituted adultery. Such an uncertain definition on Cowdery’s part would account for his curious mix of vehemence against Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy” behavior on the one hand and reticence to directly call it “adultery” on the other.
Though Cowdery’s letter, with its talk of Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair,” would seem to explicitly identify the relationship as an extramarital affair, it does not. The letter stops short of an accusation of adultery.
It’s an important point that Oliver wasn’t there for his trial, so he couldn’t rebut what they were saying about him. The testimonies against him easily could have been exaggerated or misconstrued. However, it also seems quite clear that he believed polygamy was an immoral sexual sin, even if it may not have technically been adultery.
He was found guilty and excommunicated at this trial, by the way, after Joseph got up and explained the truth of the situation between him and Fanny. The minutes of the meeting state that he addressed it, and that the Far West High Council was satisfied, but they’re deliberately brief and vague. It does not say what he told them, just that he gave an explanation that satisfied them. However, according to Bradley, the scribe of those minutes later wrote a letter where he said that polygamy first came to light in 1838, the year of the trial. It seems pretty clear that Joseph told the High Council about being commanded to practice plural marriage at that time, and that they accepted his explanation even if they didn’t fully understand or believe it at that time. This is particularly interesting to me because I had an ancestor at that meeting, the man who brought the charges against Oliver to begin with. He didn’t record anything about Joseph’s comments that would shed further light on the matter, unfortunately.
Where we can get some clarification is in the wording of that infamous line of Oliver’s. The letter of Oliver’s reads, in part:
…When [Joseph] was here we had some conversation in which in every instance, I did not fail to affirm that what 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 deviated from the truth on the matters, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.
You’ll notice how he repeats that what he was saying was “strictly” true. He’s being very careful with his words here, and that word “strictly” is used several more times throughout that letter. He’s saying that while he hasn’t technically said that Joseph committed adultery, he pretty much believes that, or that it was at least on a similar level.
We have a copy of this letter because it’s part of something called a letter book, which was a thing back in the 1800s. People would copy their letters before they mailed them off so that they’d had a record of them. Oliver’s record book was copied down by his nephew, so that letter is actually in his nephew’s handwriting, not Oliver’s, and the word “affair” was chosen by the nephew. Oliver’s original word, that was crossed out and written over the top of, was “scrape.”
What’s the significance of this? The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary entry for “scrape” states that one of the definitions is, “Difficulty; perplexity; distress; that which harasses. [A low word.]” It was basically saying they were in a jam…a dirty, nasty, filthy jam. It’s also a “low word,” which means it’s not a polite word to use. It’s not quite an obscenity, but it’s a crude term that his nephew was probably hesitant to record.
The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary also shows us why the nephew chose the word “affair” as a replacement. It was not talking about an extramarital affair, the way the word commonly means today. It wasn’t even talking about a love affair of any kind. It’s talking about “Business of any kind,” “matters,” or something “that is done.” In some cases it could also mean, “a private dispute.” Really, it’s just a more polite word than the word Oliver originally used, but they ultimately mean the same thing, a private matter between them that Oliver considers to be dirty or wrong.
Oliver saw polygamy as something immoral and filthy, just like he viewed any sexual sin. He may have hesitated to call it adultery, but he certainly didn’t approve and didn’t seem to see much difference, though he acknowledged that Joseph did.
The main accusation flying around during the Kirtland days was not of polygamy, it was of adultery. Joseph repeatedly and strenuously denied that he was engaged in adultery, and that was the crux of his argument with Oliver on the subject. Oliver was hesitant to call Joseph a liar, but he wasn’t shy about saying that he believed what Joseph was doing was wrong. He did not believe that something like polygamy could ever come from God. Joseph was equally forceful in saying that it wasn’t wrong, it was a commandment from God, and it wasn’t adultery. Many of Joseph’s polygamy denials from this time period were focused on this point: he was not an adulterer and did not appreciate being called one.
And, in Jeremy’s last point before his recap begins, he states:
Joseph was practicing polygamy before the sealing authority was given. LDS historian Richard Bushman states: “There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323 Plural marriages are rooted in the notion of “sealing” for both time and eternity. The “sealing” power was not restored until April 3, 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the sealing keys upon him. So, Joseph’s “marriage” to Fanny Alger in 1833 was illegal under both the laws of the land and under any theory of divine authority; it was adultery.
Again, there are a lot of things here that need to be addressed because they’re simply not true. First, if Joseph was practicing polygamy before the sealing authority was given, which is not a certainty, he had already been warned several years before that the “restoration of all things” included polygamy and that the Saints would be commanded to practice it in due time. If Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was correct on the timing and the angel did visit Joseph in 1834 and command him to practice plural marriage, then marrying Fanny Alger in 1835 or 1836 was a commandment from God. He had the authority to perform marriages; he just didn’t have the authority to perform sealings yet. The two are not the same, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly in this series.
Second, there were plural marriages for time only, such as Brigham Young and Eliza Snow or Zina Huntington, and there were other plural marriages for eternity only, such as Joseph’s polyandrous sealings, so it is not true to say that plural marriages are only for time and eternity or that they have to be sealings. Brian Hales adds the important point that three of Joseph’s plural wives were widows to whom he was not sealed. There is not one single piece of evidence anywhere that says that Joseph couldn’t have been married to Fanny for time only. There also isn’t confirmation that they were never sealed. That marriage could have taken place after the sealing power was restored in the spring of 1836. Even William McLellin labels it a sealing in one of his stories, and so does nearly everyone else who mentions it. It’s doubtful, but it’s still a possibility. There are too many assumptions being made where the historical record is not at all clear.
Third, there is no evidence that the marriage took place in 1833. That’s an estimation due to a dubious secondhand account by Mosiah Hancock repeating a story his father Levi had supposedly told him, and then a few historians assuming the timing of the Joseph/Fanny marriage based off Levi’s marriage to Mosiah’s mother. Several of Mosiah’s other stories from that same account are impossible, though, so he was clearly prone to exaggeration—or at least naïve enough to believe exaggerated accounts from someone else and to pass them along as fact.
Fourth, when it was something commanded by God, it was not “illegal under any theory of divine authority,” nor was it adultery. It was sanctioned by God, and just like Daniel refusing to cease from praying, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow down to the idol of the king, the laws of God come before the laws of the land when they’re in conflict. Jeremy is wrong on every count in this paragraph.
Anyway, I hope this is helping you guys put these events into context. It’s a complicated subject and I want it all to make sense for everyone. Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, these things are not nearly as cut and dried as Jeremy Runnells makes them out to be. Do not take him at his word. Investigate this stuff for yourselves, lean on God for understanding, and make up your own minds.
Like Hermione Granger says, “When in doubt, go to the library.” And like President Nelson says, “The Prophet Joseph Smith set a pattern for us to follow in resolving our questions. Drawn to the promise of James that if we lack wisdom we may ask of God, the boy Joseph took his question directly to Heavenly Father. He sought personal revelation, and his seeking opened this last dispensation. In like manner, what will your seeking open for you? What wisdom do you lack? What do you feel an urgent need to know or understand? Follow the example of the Prophet Joseph. … You don’t have to wonder about what is true. You do not have to wonder whom you can safely trust. Through personal revelation, you can receive your own witness that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and that this is the Lord’s Church. Regardless of what others may say or do, no one can ever take away a witness borne to your heart and mind about what is true.”
The two concepts go hand in hand. Do your own research, and do it with God’s hand guiding you. If you do, you’ll get the answers you need.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.
Michael Towns says
Another outstanding entry in this series! Many thanks for all the hard work you’ve done compiling the sources. I’m extremely well read in Church history, and this essay taught me a few things I had not previously known!