Joseph Smith Polygamy: Joseph Smith’s Trial and Error Approach to Plural Marriage (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Joseph Smith Polygamy: Joseph Smith’s Conflicts Between Emma Hale Smith and Oliver Cowdery

Did you know that Joseph Smith’s first attempt to obey the Lord’s command to him to practice plural marriage ended quite badly and ended up straining his relationships, both with his first wife, Emma and with his close friend Oliver Cowdery? And have you ever heard that Joseph was sealed to several women who already had living husbands? Was this a scandalous practice or was something else going on? Let’s deep dive into all of these topics and more as we trace Joseph Smith Polygamy practices. We understand that he had a trial-and-error approach to personally living the practice of plural marriage, including some innovative uses of the sealing power, to accomplish God’s will the best he understood it. 

The Four Reasons for Plural Marriage

There are four official kinds of canonized reasons for plural marriage. The first was a test of faithfulness couched in the Abrahamic sacrifice motif. You know, we talked about how even though this practice has been discontinued for over a hundred years now, plural marriage still acts as a test for many members of the church today, right? Pulling at our heartstrings. It’s as repugnant today as it ever was for many of us. The second is that it was a part of the restitution of all things. The third reason given was to multiply and replenish the earth, the one that we most quickly think of. And then the fourth is to provide a path for the exaltation of all faithful women. Section 132 articulates this idea that everyone needs to be sealed in an eternal marriage in order to be a candidate for the highest heaven. And for those women who are unable to do so monogamously, for whatever reason, plural marriage would help them in obtaining a celestial marriage.

So monogamous or plural doesn’t matter. As long as you are sealed in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, that would be sufficient to help your exaltation. So that was reason number four. Now, believe it or not, that was the easy part of the discussion. When we’re dealing with the whys, we’re dealing with canonized scripture where we can point and say, “Hey, a revelation says this is the reason why.” From here on, the discussion’s going to be a little bit more focused around the “what.” And this means that we’re going to be dealing with some places where we have gaps in our historical record where there are some things that we don’t know that we wish we did. And rather than offering, like, a strict interpretation about, “Hey, here’s what happened,” I think our approach is going to be to basically say, “Here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know,” and we’re not necessarily going to try and manage the gaps. For instance, a big gap is there’s not a lot of material from Emma Smith about her perspective on plural marriage. And so rather than speculating what Emma might have been feeling or anything like that, we’re going to kind of just tell you what we know and what we don’t know, and then let you make up your own mind as you go forward.

Beginnings of Plural Marriage within the Church

So today we’re talking about and providing a timeline of how Joseph Smith Polygamy was initiated and then practiced in the church. We’re going to start again in 1831 and work our way through the known sources. We’re just going to piece together the best we can, using the best research and available sources, and knowing that it’s going to be imperfect, as all historical reconstruction is. But this one is particularly challenging. Another thing to keep in mind here is these are Victorian people, that they don’t want to talk about their intimate lives, and very few of them do. And so some of those questions that are most pressing about plural marriage are things that it’s difficult to find sources to answer just because at this point in time, people didn’t often open up about their intimate lives. We’re actually going to go all the way back to 1831 again and start from there with the sources we know and how plural marriage was developed. It’s clear that Joseph Smith knows he’s supposed to practice plural marriage, but isn’t necessarily given a how it’s supposed to be performed. 

It seems clear that from what happens and how the story unfolds as we understand it, that Joseph was not given an instruction manual on precisely how to live the practice himself or on exactly how to implement it among his people. He has got to figure it out. And this seems to be the way the Lord deals with some of his best students is he gives them the general principles and then he lets them figure it out. And anytime you’ve got to figure it out and your agency’s involved, that leaves room for some stumbling and bumbling. And so we’re going to see that a little bit, I think, in this, at least as far as we have sources to help us reconstruct this, so. We can assume pretty safely, I think, that Joseph has basically got the principles of D&C 132 in his mind, and that’s about it, as far as we know. He doesn’t begin until sometime between 1834 and 1836. This will be in Kirtland, Ohio, and this will be his first attempt at Joseph Smith Polygamy practices. Why doesn’t he start this—if he knows about it in 1831 why does he not attempt to enter in until 1834 to 1836? I think that’s a pretty good question.

We have a little bit from one of his wives, Mary Elizabeth Rollins. She later recollects that an angel came to Joseph three times. Here’s the direct quote. She said that Joseph told her, “The angel came to me three times between the years of 1834 and 1842, and said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me.”1 She also said that “Joseph the Seer … said [that] God gave him a commandment in 1834, to take other wives besides Emma.”2 So 1834 seems to be the year when we know that the Lord, through the angel, is now urging Joseph to begin the practice. And so it’s Mary Elizabeth Rollins’ account that gives us that 1834 mark. And then we know when this got broken up. His first plural marriage attempt was broken up in 1836. We know that because of Eliza R. Snow. So it had to be somewhere in that 1834-1836 timeframe. Let me interject here a little bit about the source. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, sometimes she’s called, is giving this at a speech at BYU in the early 20th century, right? So we’re several decades removed. Now, she is a close friend of Joseph Smith, and she’s just about our only source on this 1834 date, right? That’s right. She says it twice. Yeah, she’s the source saying that the angels started urging in 1834 and then another time, and then he comes the last time in 1842, according to her. So we’ll kind of use that recollection as a timeline spine that I think helps to make sense of many of the facts as we go through the story today. So 1834-36 is the time frame we’re dealing with here.

Fanny Alger – Joseph Smith’s First Plural Wife

Throughout Joseph Smith Polygamy practices, many wonder who his first wife was. Her name is Fanny Alger. She was 19 or 20 years old, depending on when in that timeframe he marries her. She was the help in Joseph and Emma’s home, so she helped Emma keep the home. She lived there with them, and Joseph apparently proposed through her uncle Levi Hancock. We have a late recollection of Levi’s son, Mosiah Hancock. And he tells the story that Joseph proposes to Fanny through Levi Hancock, her uncle.

Levi went to her father, Solomon, and he said, “That’s fine by me. You need to ask my wife.” So he asks, that would’ve been Levi’s sister, I think Clarissa is her name. He asked Clarissa, she said, “That’s fine by me. You need to ask Fanny.” And so then Levi goes to Fanny, and Fanny accepts the proposal. And then, according to this account, Mosiah Hancock’s account, Joseph told Levi Hancock what to say in the ceremony, and then he repeated it back. So Joseph is telling him the words, Levi’s saying the words, and by the time he’s done, the ceremony has been performed, and they are now husband and wife. So that’s as far as we know the details of—we have that late recollection of that happening. Then, in 1836, Eliza R. Snow is going to move into the Smith Home, and it’s going to be the spring of 1836, a few weeks after the Kirtland Temple is dedicated in April. Where Fanny Alger is going to be abruptly kicked out of the house. And this is the time period when Emma discovers what has happened. Apparently Joseph—again, we have to infer some things here by her reaction. It doesn’t seem like Joseph told her about this. 

Tensions Rise Between Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, and Oliver Cowdery

There are some late accounts; they’re kind of antagonistic sources. William E. McLellin‘s got one. He was at this time an apostate, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve, so we’re not sure if he’s doing some innuendo and shenanigans and remembering things wrong, but he says that Emma discovered Joseph and Fanny in the barn. This was the first marriage of the timeline of Joseph Smith Polygamy. She saw them getting married through a crack in the barn, so we don’t know what to make of McLellin’s account. The William McLellin letter, which everybody points to on Fanny Alger, is highly suspect. McLellin brings up a couple of other instances in that letter that just did not happen, and it seems like he was trying to stir the pot a little bit when he did that. And so I would say I’d handle that source with real care. The other sources that we have here are Mosiah Hancock, who’s very late. This is an account from the 1890s, and then surprisingly, the reason why Fanny even enters into the conversation is Eliza R. Snow. Andrew Jenson, the church historian, is trying to compile a list of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. And Eliza, who was roommates with Fanny in Kirtland, is the one that tells him he needs to include her, too. That Fanny was the first plural wife. She said, “I was there.” I saw that—I knew that Fanny was because I was there, yeah. But on the one hand, I mean, there’s nothing from Emma. And so everybody’s take on how Emma reacted to Fanny Alger is from William McLellin’s letter, which is really suspect. And I’m not saying Emma was thrilled about it, because the marriage [between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger] ends in separation, but at the same time, too, we’re being a little unfair to her and Joseph if we take a source that’s as questionable as that as far as people sometimes do. As with the topic of Joseph Smith Polygamy, there’s more than meets the eye. McLellin, another major problem with that source is that he says that Emma told him that. The odds of Emma Smith opening up to William E. McLellin about a matter that intimate is so astronomically small as to be laughable. I mean, that is just, yeah, that’s the number one flag there.

What we do know is that Fanny was expelled from the home in 1836. Eliza R. Snow is clear about that. Something occurs where Emma is infuriated and kicks Fanny out of the house and is obviously not approving of this marriage. In fact, it got so bad that Joseph calls his friend Oliver Cowdery to come kind of help him out. But that even goes worse because Oliver sides with Emma. And so Emma does not think this is a legitimate union, and she thinks this is adulterous, from everything we can tell. In fact, later on, Oliver Cowdery is going to say that he believes that this was an adulterous affair. When it comes to Oliver’s accusations with Joseph Smith, or what causes this kind of confrontation between them, there are some sources, like there’s a letter written in January of 1838. Tell us a little bit about that. Who’s the letter to? What does it say? We have a letter from Oliver to his brother, Warren Cowdery, where he says, “I never confessed [or] intimated or admitted that I ever willfully lied about him,” meaning Joseph Smith. “When he 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 scrape.” And then “scrape” is crossed out and “affair” is overwritten in Warren F. Cowdery’s handwriting, which is Warren Cowdery’s son, so Oliver Cowdery’s nephew. So let me read that again. “I did not fail to affirm that [which] I had said was strictly true A dirty, nasty, filthy scrape [crossed out] affair of his and Fanny Algers (sic) was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth on the matter, … as I supposed was admitted by himself.” In terms of Joseph Smith Polygamy, we’re not sure what the context he is talking about here, because his church trial hadn’t happened yet. That’ll happen in April, but he is talking to his brother here, Warren Cowdery, or writing to his brother, that he continues to affirm that some dirty, nasty, filthy affair/scrape between Joseph and Fanny Alger had been talked about and that he had affirmed the truthfulness of it and that—he says, I suppose, was admitted by Joseph. So that’s going to be a point of contention. Did Joseph really admit that he had had some dirty, nasty, filthy affair?

Oliver Cowdery Church Trial

Later on, actually, at the minutes of Oliver Cowdery’s church trial in April, April 12, David W. Patten testified that when he went to Oliver Cowdery to inquire of him if a certain story was true respecting Joseph Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl, Oliver “turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty. He then went on and gave a history of some circumstances respecting the adultery scrape, stating that no doubt it was true. He also said that Joseph told him that he had confessed to Emma.” Thomas B. Marsh then tells the story that when David Patten asked Oliver Cowdery if Joseph had actually confessed to his wife that he was guilty of adultery, that Oliver “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 he conveyed the idea that it was true. Last fall,” Thomas. B. Marsh continues, “He heard a conversation take place between Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery” when Joseph confronts Oliver. “[Joseph] asked [Oliver] if he had ever confessed to him that he was guilty of adultery, when after considerable winking [&c.] he said no. Joseph … asked him if he ever told him that he confessed to anybody when he answered no.”8 That’s the end of that quote. And we know from the trial minutes of Oliver Cowdery’s excommunication trial, there were nine accusations, right?

And the second accusation was his insinuation through the Joseph Smith Polygamy timeline was that Joseph Smith had committed adultery. And so what I just read were some of the witnesses kind of brought to the stand here to explain what they had heard Oliver say and what they had overheard Joseph say to Oliver confronting him about this. So it’s a little unclear why Oliver wouldn’t just state the facts, but he’s got lots of insinuation, cocking his eye up, knowingly winking… I don’t know. What do you make of all this, Casey? Interestingly, Oliver doesn’t attend the trial himself. He writes a letter, basically signaling that he’s going to resign his membership in the church. They excommunicate him before they accept his resignation. It’s kind of a, “You can’t quit, you’re fired” kind of situation. But Oliver never addresses the charges that he was accusing Joseph of adultery. Oliver doesn’t respond when he’s given the chance. And in all these cases, even though they’re making it look like Oliver’s being kind of cagey, he never says [on the record] that Joseph Smith confessed to him that he was guilty of adultery. Oliver’s reason that he gave for leaving the church was that the church was trying to force him to sell his property in Jackson County and that this was an infringement on his rights as an American citizen and things like that. When we look at the events around Joseph Smith Polygamy, Oliver isn’t directly on the public record accusing Joseph Smith of adultery, and so it’s more complicated than that. But I just think it’s curious that when Oliver has the chance to put it into the public record, he doesn’t even bring it up or address it. And if it had been a significant factor in Oliver wanting to resign from the church or being excommunicated, I think he would’ve addressed it. I mean, if you’re getting kicked out of the church, it feels like this is your chance to, you know, burn the whole building down, too. And he just doesn’t even address it, which is curious in my mind.

It’s also curious the response of the council. At the end of the minutes of that meeting on April 12 Joseph Smith, Jr. himself testified about this, and here’s what the minutes say. It’s a little bit cryptic, I guess, or at least unsatisfying as I read it, but here’s what it says. “Joseph Smith, Jr. testifies that Oliver Cowdery had been his bosom friend, therefore he entrusted him with many things.” And then it says, “Joseph then gave a history respecting the girl business.” And that’s the end of the matter. So whatever Joseph said about “the girl business,” this is him responding to the accusation. The counsel concluded based on what they heard, that there was no adultery, and that that accusation was not true. I want to point out one thing. In the minutes, which you can find on the Joseph Smith Papers site, the JSP historians that have looked at this, when Joseph makes that line where he had entrusted Oliver with many things, there’s a footnote there where the JSP historians write, “It is unclear precisely what information [Joseph Smith] entrusted to Cowdery regarding [his] relationship with Fanny Alger. Later accounts variously claim that Cowdery performed a marriage ceremony between [Joseph Smith] and Alger, was called upon by [Joseph Smith] to mediate between [him] and Emma Smith after the relationship was discovered, or had been taught the doctrine of plural marriage privately and took a plural wife contrary to [Joseph’s] instructions.” And they’re drawing from two articles. One’s by Don Bradley on Joseph Smith Polygamy, specifically the relationship of Joseph Smith, and Fanny Alger, one’s by Brian Hales on accusations of adultery and polygamy made against Oliver Cowdery. So, I mean, we’re speculating to say as to what Joseph Smith entrusted him with. It could be that he told Oliver Cowdery about plural marriage and explained the doctrines and the sealing keys behind it.

So if we’re looking at the historical records, strictly speaking, Oliver doesn’t provide an answer to that question. He doesn’t comment on it any further. Joseph Smith, when he takes the stand, does say that he had had conversations with Oliver about this. And the fact that Oliver doesn’t respond or make further accusations or charges in his response seems to suggest that maybe there was some sort of détente that was reached there, that they reconciled a little bit on it. I don’t know if that’s the case, but to me it’s telling that when Oliver states his reasons for resigning his membership to the church, he doesn’t mention Fanny Alger or the affair or anything like that at all. When it seems like if Oliver’s interested in reforming the church, he would’ve brought that up. He would’ve been confrontational at it. But one of the reasons he directly states in the historical record is not anything to do with Fanny Alger. It’s all stuff that has to do with finance and what he saw as the church exerting unfair control over his finances. Well, that’s good. So it strained the relationship between him and Joseph, we could say, but we don’t know how much, and it certainly was not the only factor. That’s what I’m hearing you say. I would say the sources indicate that it definitely strained their relationship, but it’s not in Oliver’s directly stated reasons for leaving the church.

Following God’s Instructions

And that’s the only point I really wanted to bring up was just that this marriage, the sealing with Fanny Alger is going to strain that bosom friendship that Joseph spoke of with him and Oliver, and so that’s just one of the fallouts of the Fanny Alger experience, in addition to the strain that it put on Joseph’s marriage with Emma. I would agree with you that it’s clear that this first, early venture into Joseph Smith Polygamy just seems like it doesn’t end well. I mean, for obvious reasons, the marriage ends in separation. Fanny stays behind in Ohio. Joseph moves on to Missouri and then Nauvoo, and it’s several years until he makes another attempt. The next plural wife that we have a record of is April 1841. That’s Louisa Beaman. And you mentioned earlier that, according to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, this is also around the time that the angel visits Joseph Smith again and issues the same instruction, to enter into plural marriage. So yeah, that would be about a five-year gap between when the Fanny Alger or Alger marriage occurred or ended, let’s say, and when he starts again. So that five-year gap has caused some head-scratching. I don’t think it’s too head-scratching to wonder, “Why would Joseph not rush into another plural marriage after the Fanny Alger incident?” I mean, that was such a painful first attempt is what it seems like. There was no rush to get into that again. It’s going to take the angel coming a second time, it seems like, to say, “All right, it’s time to begin again.” It fits the idea that Joseph Smith is hesitant. He’s struggling with this.

By this point, he’s seen a toll on his personal relationships, but there’s still a compelling reason for him to practice it, and he does get back to it eventually in Nauvoo and then eventually starts introducing it to other people as well. If, and again we’re going on such thin historical records, but what we do know is that after Fanny leaves, and that marriage is for all intents and purposes no longer, Emma, if she felt like Joseph Smith Polygamy practices were an adulterous situation, forgave Joseph. She stays with Joseph and continues to be by his side and to suffer with the Saints and to come to Nauvoo, and she’s amazing. If she felt like this was adulterous and she sticks with Joseph and forgave him, that’s a remarkable thing. I just want to point that out, that that’s amazing. Even if Joseph’s like, “This is not adulterous. The angel required it. God wanted me to do this,” and if Emma didn’t believe that and continued to forgive, I mean, that’s remarkable. The most frustrating part of this journey is how little source material we have from conversations between Joseph and Emma. Other than section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, almost everything is thirdhand. And those discussions that they must have been having would be a major part of this story that could really contribute to it. Because, for instance, when he starts over in Nauvoo, it’s interesting that there are different types of sealings that happened in Nauvoo. For instance, when we think of the word “sealing” nowadays, it’s synonymous with marriage in the church. It means you’re married to someone, “I was sealed to this person.” In Nauvoo, they had various types of sealings, including eternity-only sealings, which were a little bit different than the way we think of sealings today.

In summary, it’s important to acknowledge that some of the topics we’ve explored today might seem peculiar when viewed through the lens of our contemporary perspective. However, after extensively delving into Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriages, the lives of his wives, and the individuals involved, with the evidence provided there is no evidence to suggest any deceitful activities. It’s reasonable to affirm that Joseph’s actions do not invalidate his status as a true prophet of God or undermine the trust we place in him. Throughout our discussion, it’s undeniable that certain aspects can be disconcerting to many. Nevertheless, we’ve provide context that explains the history of Joseph Smith and his relationship to Emma Smith as well as his plural wives. He approached Joseph Smith Polygamy with reluctance, striving to faithfully follow a challenging divine directive. Taking the entirety of historical accounts into account, we are inclined to believe that he handled the situation admirably.

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By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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