Historians can thank Joseph Smith's mother for the knowledge of several significant events that occurred in the life of the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Young Joseph's leg operation, accounts of persecution the Smiths suffered from people trying to obtain the golden plates and details about the great sense of loss the family felt when the oldest son, Alvin, died all came from the record kept by Lucy Mack Smith. According to Sharalyn Howcroft, assistant archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers project, Lucy's record provides details that Joseph's own history did not.
"There are aspects of Joseph Smith's history that he doesn't really talk about in his own history," Howcroft said.
"From her record, we get the deep sense of loss of Alvin at the time of his death," Howcroft said. Because Alvin died fairly young, he was unable to participate in events of the Restoration. We know very little about him, Howcroft said, but because of Lucy's record, we can learn about the "pivotal" part he played in the Smith family.
"He was a very solid, stable figure of the family," Howcroft said.
When Alvin died, Lucy recorded some of his final words to his brother Joseph, advising him to do all he could to obtain the golden plates.
"One has to wonder the impact Alvin would have had in helping spread the Gospel in the early days of the church and the supporting role he would have played to Joseph had he been alive," Howcroft said.
She said Lucy's original manuscript, which the church has segments of in its possession, is the first attempt by a woman in the church to write an autobiography and biography. In it, Lucy writes about herself, her family while growing up and her family after she was married.
"It's quite an attempt to explain the experience of the Smiths," Howcroft said.
One of the main topics addressed in Lucy's account is the "earnest yearning for religious truth" that was felt by the Smith family and Lucy in the years before she married, Howcroft said. From Lucy's record, we can get a sense of where her son Joseph gained his own yearning for the truth.
"This was something that was generational, both in the Mack and the Smith family," Howcroft said. "There was a desire to know the will of God. And when two people that are deeply religious like that come together, marry and build a life together, that priority of spirituality and religion, of course, will go on to their children. I think, in part, Joseph Jr.'s desire to find what religion was right came from his parents, who were seeking the truth."
Howcroft said there are three accounts of how Lucy's record-keeping began. The first comes from Martha Coray Lewis, who said that her mother, Martha Jane Coray, who married Joseph Smith's secretary, Howard Coray, would write while Lucy dictated. Martha Jane Coray would read the account back to Lucy while they made corrections. Howcroft regards this account as a "pure labor of love."
The second account comes from Howard Coray, who said that in the fall of 1844, Lucy came to his wife and asked her to write while she dictated.
The third account comes from a letter from Lucy to her son William, where she said she had undertaken the writing of the history because she was directed by the Quorum of the Twelve to do so.
"We have three conflicting accounts of who started it and the reason why," Howcroft said. "But the pairing of Martha Jane Coray and Lucy Mack in the creating of this account, I believe, was not an accident."
Howcroft said that Coray had a habit of writing down anything of interest to her in her life. If she was at a meeting and noticed that there was not a clerk taking notes, she would take them. Consequently, she had notes from sermons of Joseph Smith, John Taylor, Brigham Young, George A. Smith and others, Howcroft said. Coray wanted to preserve for her children a history of the Prophet, his sermons and writings.
"For (Coray) to be paired with Lucy Mack in this endeavor of writing history is perfect because (Coray) had such an intense interest in Joseph Smith, in the Smith family," Howcroft said.
She said it is unclear when the two women met, but they did start working on Lucy's record in the fall of 1844. They finished it possibly by July of 1845, but for sure by October of 1845. Lucy died 10 years later.
Lucy used other sources than her memory to create her record. Howcroft said Lucy used her father's record, family letters and genealogical information from family members a letter from her brother was found to contain some genealogical information. There was also a "scrap of paper" with Emma Smith's handwriting, containing genealogical information, which Lucy used. Howcroft said there is also a point where Lucy used Times and Seasons, a 19th-century LDS periodical published monthly or twice-monthly at Nauvoo, Ill., which contained a personal history of Joseph Smith.
Howcroft said part of the reason she thinks Lucy used portions of Times and Seasons was because the periodical had already published some information recorded by Joseph.
"Why reinvent the wheel?" Howcroft said.
Howcroft said there has been some scrutiny from scholars and historians in the past about the accuracy of Lucy's record. But, for the most part, it's accurate, she said.
"There are a few inaccuracies in terms of dating, sometimes with people and places," Howcroft said. "But it's minimal. That's the difficulty of working from memory for any of us, is that undoubtedly we will misplace things, people and places. It's the nature of memory."
The "Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith" manual used in priesthood and Relief Society meetings contains several segments from Lucy's history, Howcroft said. Those segments are documented in footnotes and resources throughout the manual.