The Alger family joined the church in 1830. Their daughter Fanny was 14 at the time. In 1836, the Algers left Kirtland. Joseph asked Fanny’s uncle, Levi Hancock, to take her to Missouri with the Saints, but Fanny chose to follow her parents instead. She soon married a grocer named Solomon Custer in Indiana and bore nine children. That is what we know reliably about the Alger family. What happened between 1830 and 1836 is, unfortunately, shrouded in mystery and innuendo. See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling at 323 — 7 (Vintage Books, 2007).
To be clear, there is no direct, irrefutable evidence that Joseph had any kind of relationship with Fanny Alger, much less a marriage. What follows is a summary of my best guess based on what I’ve read.
By 1837, Oliver Cowdery had become disaffected with Joseph. Although he never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon, or of the revelations he had been a part of, he believed that Joseph had been involved in a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” with Fanny Alger. (He may also have been disaffected over Joseph’s attempts to establish the United Order, contrary to Cowdery’s closely-held Masonic and republican beliefs in individual property rights. Indeed, those disputes may have deeply colored his perception, where he might otherwise have stood with Joseph.) Oliver charged that Joseph was guilty of serious sin, and presumably that Joseph had therefore fallen from his prophetic calling. In November 1837, Joseph and Oliver faced off at a council of elders. Bushman at 324, citing Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1830 — 1844 at 120, 167 — 8 (Deseret Book, 1983). In the meeting, Oliver charged that Joseph had not only been guilty of adultery, but that Joseph had admitted to the same. Joseph (possibly dancing carefully around the issue), specifically denied that he was guilty of adultery, and demanded that Oliver retract the charge that Joseph had admitted to adultery. Oliver finally agreed that Joseph had never confessed to adultery. Joseph did not, however, specifically deny having had sexual relations with Fanny Alger. It is likely that to the elders present, Joseph’s denial of adultery was synonymous with denying a sexual relationship. Oliver was excommunicated in April 1838 on nine charges, including one that he had falsely charged the prophet with adultery (he returned in 1848, much humbled). Bushman at 347.
In fact, Oliver may have been partially right. Although Joseph never committed adultery, there is evidence that sometime between 1830 and 1836, the Lord commanded Joseph to take Fanny Alger (who was working in his home as a serving girl) as a plural wife. The best estimates indicate it was probably around 1835, which accords with the account referenced in my previous post that an angel visited Joseph, sword drawn, in 1834 and threatened to strike him down if he did not yield to the word of the Lord on the matter of plural marriage. According to one account, Joseph asked Fanny’s uncle Levi Hancock to approach her parents and ask permission to marry Fanny. The Algers agreed, and Joseph had Hancock perform the ceremony, dictating the precise language to him.
A more difficult question is whether the alleged marriage was ever consummated, or did Joseph treat it as a formality (as he would have much preferred to do)? The circumstantial evidence is unreliable, but I think it weighs in favor of consummation: specifically, Emma’s reported reaction, and that Joseph never denied a sexual relationship when it would have been easy to do so. If the marriage in fact occurred, and if it was consummated, we have no clues whether it was once or a hundred times, and it hardly matters. If the affair had been adulterous, once would be enough to strip Joseph of his prophetic mantle and destroy his soul. But if they were were sealed in a covenant marriage, sexual relations, however frequent, could not have been adulterous, however distressing they may have been to Emma or even Joseph and Fanny. D&C 132:61. Adding to the ambiguity, Fanny’s brother asked her decades later about her relationship with Joseph Smith. Fanny kept her own counsel. “That is all a matter of my own. And I have nothing to communicate.” Bushman at 327. Fanny’s answer is no more helpful to the prophet’s defenders than to his enemies.
Assuming it occurred and was consummated, this marriage challenges our modern sensibilities for a number of reasons. First, it’s superficially easy to presume that Joseph was simply abusing his charisma and good looks to gratify his lust for his domestic servant. The “man of the house” having an illicit affair with the maid, nanny, or au pair is so common a theme as to be a cliche. But if that was Joseph’s intent, he went about it oddly. This hypothetical Adulterous Joseph would have had to approach her uncle, to approach her parents, to ask permission to perform a sham wedding, at which he asked her uncle to officiate. That’s hardly in character for the cock-sure womanizer of the cliche. Far easier to just take the girl on a whim.
Second, for all of Joseph’s apparent efforts to tread carefully on the formalities of performing the marriage, there is no evidence he told Emma about it. One account includes Emma angrily ejecting Fanny from the household, possibly because Emma believed that Fanny had seduced her husband. Bushman at 325 — 6. Was Joseph justified in deceiving Emma, even to keep the Lord’s commandment? Wouldn’t it have been better to teach the principle to Emma and gain her consent (as would later be expressly required by scripture)? Perhaps this was a case where Joseph made a mortal mistake in doing his best to keep the Lord’s commandment. On the other hand, for all I know, the Lord—anticipating Emma’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction—expressly instructed Joseph not to tell Emma about the revelation this early. In any case, Joseph loved Emma deeply, and it broke his heart to do anything that he knew would hurt her deeply, even at the Lord’s express command. There are no accounts of Joseph reveling in plural marriage, as John Bennett would later revel in the twisted doctrine he called “spiritual wifery.”
Third, Fanny’s age may be a hangup for some. Some believe that Joseph married Fanny as early as 1831, in which case she would have been only 15 or so. By 1835, she would have been about 19, which is less difficult. This, however, is a product of the times. In the 1830s (and for centuries before), teenage brides were not uncommon. Even Mary may have been a teenager when she was called on to bear the Son of God. In any case, the Lord knows who is ready for marriage at such a young age, and who is not. If Joseph married a teenage Fanny, it was at the Lord’s command, and she was mature enough to handle it. This was not an abusive, compulsive marriage, like those practiced by Warren Jeffs and his followers.
Finally, a more technical question is the actual nature of the marriage. In the Church, we commonly recognize two levels of marriage. Marriages for “time only” (i.e., any traditional marriage) are recognized as legitimate and valid. But the gold standard is marriage for “time and eternity,” where the couple is sealed by the priesthood and promised the blessings of exaltation, eternal life, and the continuation of seed forever. The Lord was not interested in having Joseph accumulate a harem of temporal wives. Indeed, in every instance where He has authorized plural marriage (at least as far as I’m aware), it has been plural covenant marriage, with a sealing for time and/or eternity.
In our modern setting, a couple can be sealed only in the temple. Certain men are called as “sealers” in the temple, and the authority to seal families must be traceable to the President of the Church, who is the only man alive to hold and exercise the keys of the “Sealing Power.” (There is only ever one man on the earth who holds the keys of the sealing power.) You may have learned in Seminary or Institute that Elijah restored the keys to the sealing power at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836 (See D&C 110: 13 — 16). So how could Joseph have been “sealed” to Fanny Alger in 1835 or earlier, before the keys were restored and before there was a temple? Regarding the temple, the use of temples as the exclusive venue for covenant marriages seems to be a rather modern convention. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and many others were sealed to their wives without a temple available anciently. Regarding the issue of the sealing power, we do know that Joseph was given certain keys before April 3, 1836 (See, e.g., D&C 35:25; D&C 42:69; D&C 64:5; cf D&C 1:8 — 9). The keys of the sealing power may have been restored piecemeal, like the rest of the gospel, a little at a time as they were necessary. Perhaps Joseph was given this portion of the sealing power by delegation, much like a modern temple sealer, for the express purpose of restoring the doctrine of plural marriage. Or perhaps the union took place after April 3, 1836. Or this may have been some kind of intermediate “sealing” that would later need to be ratified in a temple. Joseph was later sealed by proxy to many of his plural wives in the temple, even though the original marriages were considered “sealings.” This seems less unusual in light of the fact that Joseph and several others were also baptized more than once and ordained to priesthood offices more than once. The fact that Joseph was so particular to dictate the language of the ceremony on this and on other occasions persuades that he considered the marriages an ordinance, not merely a civil, temporal union. In any case, a temporal union would not have any use in the Restoration that I can see, so it would seem strange for the Lord to command Joseph to enter into one.
In summary, the Fanny Alger marriage, if it happened, is not doctrinally problematic to anybody who has read D&C 132 or who knows of the early Mormons’ history of plural marriage. There is nothing in the incident that is inconsistent with doctrine that has long been openly acknowledged in the church. Joseph observed the requisite formalities, acted with authority and with the knowledge of Fanny’s parents and uncle, and Fanny herself entered into the marriage willingly. Years later, Fanny had left the body of the Saints and borne nine children by a different husband. If she had been an innocent serving girl seduced by a false prophet, this would have been the time to say so. (Similarly, if nothing had happened between them, it would have been easy to say that too.) But instead, Fanny treated the incident as a sacred memory, a pearl she would not cast before the swine of a corrupt world.
The Fanny Alger incident may have confirmed all of Joseph’s worst fears about the fallout from obeying the Lord’s command to both restore and practice covenant plural marriage. His reputation was smeared, faithful friends fell away from him and the church, and Emma’s wrath was provoked. Joseph seems to have shied away from the doctrine for a time, perhaps hoping that this one token marriage would be enough to satisfy the vengeful angel. But the plural marriage trial, one of Joseph’s greatest tests of faith, was not over. Indeed, years later it would be the single biggest weapon his enemies would use to slay him.