The True Story of Joseph Smith & Fanny Alger 

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 founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the LDS or Mormon Church. He is a figure whose life and teachings continue to fascinate and inspire people around the world. One aspect of his life that has garnered significant attention and debate is his practice of polygamy. Polygamy is the practice of having multiple spouses. It likely became a part of Mormonism in the early 1830s, but the exact date is unknown. The first plural marriage was between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger. Since then, it has become a controversial aspect of the church and Smith’s legacy. While some view Smith’s involvement in polygamy as a betrayal of his principles, others see it as a complex and misunderstood facet of his prophetic mission. 


Scholars believe that Smith probably married around 30-40 plural wives. The first of Smith’s plural marriages was with a woman named Fanny Alger. Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger’s relationship hasn’t been confirmed by first-hand accounts, but there are around nineteen other second and third-hand accounts that talk about the marriage. Many of these accounts are from decades after the marriage was believed to have taken place. 

Most historians of polygamy think that Smith received a revelation that God, in His restoration of all things, commanded Smith to re-institute the practice of polygamy. Smith might have received this revelation while reading about the biblical patriarchs who practiced polygamy. Various records from later practitioners of polygamy note that Smith was reluctant to enter polygamous relationships. For his reluctance, Smith was reprimanded by an angel. This reluctance was likely exacerbated by Smith’s failed marriage to Alger. 

Marriage to Fanny Alger

So, who was Fanny Alger? Fanny Alger was born sometime between 1816-1818. She was one of ten children born to Samuel and Clarissa Alger. Around 1833, Alger was hired as a domestic helper in the Smith household while the Smith family lived in Kirtland, Ohio. In an account written by Alger’s cousin, Mosiah Hancock, Hancock reports that his father, Levi Hancock (Fanny’s uncle), was approached by Smith and told about plural marriage. Smith asked Levi to ask Alger and her parents about arranging a plural marriage between himself and Alger. All parties seem to have consented, and the marriage took place sometime in 1835 or 1836, with Levi performing the ceremony.  

The marriage did not last long. The entire Alger family left Ohio for Missouri and on the journey, Fanny met a man in Indiana named Solomon Custer. She and Custer married in November of 1836. They had a family and Alger joined the Universalist church. She stayed around Indiana and Illinois for the rest of her life. In her later years, Alger was asked about her relationship with Joseph Smith and she replied, “That is all matter of my own and I have nothing to communicate.”

After Smith’s failed plural marriage to Alger, he discontinued the practice of Joseph Smith polygamy for years. After moving to Nauvoo, it appears that Smith was visited by an angel again and told to continue to practice polygamy. Various accounts say that Smith was told by the angel that he had to follow this command from God or face eternal destruction. 

Other Accounts

There are two commonly recounted stories about Joseph Smith’s marriage to Fanny Alger. The first was recorded by William McLellin and the second was from Oliver Cowdery. First, McLellin’s account comes from an interview he solicited from Emma Smith in 1847. In this interview, McLellin records that Emma “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.” Critics of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy see this quote as confirmation that Smith had an illicit relationship with Alger. However, defenders of Mormonism note that this description is quite vague and it is unclear what Emma saw: a sexual encounter, the marriage ceremony, or perhaps a proposal.

Regardless of the nature of this comment, Mormons note that, if polygamy was indeed commanded by God, Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger’s relationship was not adulterous. Additionally, McLellin was a well-known antagonist of the church and Joseph Smith. He was excommunicated from the church in 1838 (his second time) and joined the Missouri mobs in persecuting Mormons. McLellin robbed Smith’s house while Smith was in Liberty Jail and petitioned to flog Smith while he was imprisoned in Richmond, Missouri. They also note that after Smith’s death, Emma refused to acknowledge that her husband had ever engaged in polygamy. This history brings up two questions: can a source that had this much contempt for Smith be trusted and would Emma have confided details about polygamy, that she denied to everyone else, to a man who robbed her and treated her husband with such violence? 

The second account comes from Oliver Cowdery. He describes the relationship between Smith and Alger as “a dirty, nasty, filthy scrape.” However, the word was crossed out by his nephew, who was transcribing Cowdery’s letters. In this letter book, transcribed by his nephew, this line reads that Smith and Alger’s relationship was “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” Scrape and affair meant similar things in the 1800s, which was matter or event. Affair did not come to mean an adulterous relationship until the 20th century. Cowdery quite clearly did not approve of the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger, even though it appears that Smith had talked to Cowdery about God’s command to practice polygamy. This difference of opinion about plural marriage is what led to Cowdery leaving the church (he would later be rebaptized). 


Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy remains a complex and contentious topic within the history of Mormonism. Whether viewed as a divine commandment, a product of cultural context, or a mixture of both, Smith’s teachings on polygamy challenge students of history to wrestle with questions of faith, authority, and moral conviction. Smith’s first polygamous marriage was with Fanny Alger. This marriage has been particularly scrutinized because not only was it short-lived but it occurred before Smith preached about polygamy openly. The sources that chronicle polygamy and the nineteenth-century context of plural marriage must also be taken into account in any study of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. While Smith’s practice of polygamy has been studied and debated, it is undeniable that it played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of the early church and continues to influence its legacy today. For more information about polygamy, Joseph Smith’s wives, and many other topics in Mormonism, visit Mormonism Explained.

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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