I think the most common question regarding the relationship between Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith is this: was it adultery or a real plural marriage? In answering that question, Brian Hales brought up a fascinating point.
What we understand is that more or less, the people that Joseph Smith told about Fanny Alger as a plural wife, they didn’t believe him….
Joseph, according to one of the accounts gets Oliver and says in the middle of the night. ‘Oliver, come help me with this.’ Oliver hears the story and sides with Emma and thinks Joseph is having an adulterous affair. That was his opinion, probably right up until his death, that Joseph was not authorized to marry her. It wasn’t a marriage. He made hints to members of the high council that Joseph had been guilty of adultery. He did not accept any story of a marriage ceremony as being valid, and neither did Emma.
On the other hand, Fanny’s family seemed to believe that it was a legitimate marriage.
But most of the people that learned it from Fanny did believe which is interesting. Fanny’s family believed. The family that Fanny went to live with was Chauncey Webb and Eliza Jane Webb, they believed that this was an actual marriage
Fanny eventually married a non-Mormon man in Indiana, but her family came to Utah, and her brother was a polygamist!
Brian: Whatever actually happened between Joseph and Fanny did not bother their faith of these people who knew the details, same with Eliza Snow.
GT: Was it true that her parents came all the way to Utah?
Brian: Her brother did and I don’t know if they died or all, but they didn’t leave the church. It’s interesting that John Alger in 1891, this is right after the 1890 Manifesto, he left the church over the Manifesto. He had a polygamist wife and he could not accept that. So again some irony.
GT: Fanny’s brother was a polygamist?
Brian: Uh huh, and he left the church over the Manifesto of 1890.
GT: Wow I did not know that. That’s interesting.
But the other important thing to remember is the fact that this marriage (if it occurred), happened BEFORE the sealing power was restored, although I should point out that dating the marriage is disputed. From part 1 of our Fanny Alger interview,
Brian: You’ve already talked to Mark Staker and he’s the one I’m dependent upon to try to identify when Fanny actually arrived in Kirtland, because some people want to pair Joseph and Fanny as early as 1831 and all. Mark told me that he thinks it couldn’t have been any, that Fanny did not joined the Smith family as a domestic in their household until at the earliest late 1833 and probably it was 1834.
We have one witness, one testimonial, only one so do with it as you please that remembers Joseph saying the angel came in July of 1834, Mary Elizabeth Rollins years later, many years later remembering this, but for me I believe Joseph would not have entered into plural marriage prior to that time, so I place the Fanny Alger-Joseph Smith union, and I believe it was a plural marriage for a couple of reasons like I’ll explain in 1835, probably late 1835, maybe early 1836. I don’t think they would have been able to keep it secret from Emma for very long. To me it’s implausible that they could have been married and actually having relations which may have occurred. There’s some evidence supporting that. We just don’t know, but they couldn’t have done this for very long without Emma figuring it out. She’s a smart lady.
I put the marriage late 1835, early 1836 discovered a few weeks or months later, but that timeline is completely controversial. People are willing to pick dates earlier, weeks/months earlier than that timeline but I don’t think that it actually would have been much earlier than that.
Don Bradley’s done some really good research and he dates the discovery to I think it’s June, May-June of 1836, so if the marriage occurred in say late April, May-June and lasted just a few months before Emma found out, which is entirely plausible, I don’t know that I embrace that, but Don at least we know when it broke up. We can date that pretty well, then it could have been a sealing. The authority could have been sealing authority that Joseph would have given to Levi.
Most scholars believe the marriage/affair occurred prior to the restoration of the sealing keys in April 1836. The question arises: was this a time-only sealing, or for eternity? By what authority was Joseph married to Fanny if it was prior to 1836 as most scholars believe?
The state wasn’t going to allow Joseph to marry a second wife, so the only authority that it could have been would be priesthood authority and Joseph was already using that authority to marry people just for time there in Kirtland. So one interpretation is Joseph gave that authority to Levi and this would have been strictly a priesthood marriage that Joseph would have argued God recognized and so if he recognized it and Fanny and her family apparently recognized it as did others who were involved, but not Oliver [Cowdery] and not Emma.
It wouldn’t have been a sealing, it wouldn’t have been an eternal marriage, but the authority that was used by Joseph to marry people for the church but just for time in Kirtland, that authority certainly could have been used here, and that’s my theory. Again these are unanswerable questions and critics are quick to rush in with other alternative interpretations. It’s just insoluble.
I did not know that Fanny’s family believed it was a real marriage. I have long questioned the legitimacy of this as a marriage, but this fact does give me pause and gives rise to several questions.
- Does this information make you less likely to accuse Joseph of adultery?
- Did you know Fanny seems to be the more believable witness?
- Why do you think Fanny was the more believable witness than Joseph?
- Why do you think Joseph wasn’t believed?
- If this marriage wasn’t a sealing, why would God command Joseph to marry for time when he was already married?
I’ll try to invite Brian again if this post generates comments. What questions would you ask him?