“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any [wo]man doeth, the same shall [s]he receive of the Lord, whether [s]he be bond or free.” – Ephesians 6:8

All I can say is, I had no idea!  Let me explain what I mean by that.  I attended a women’s health fair at our local university at which the keynote speaker was Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.  After listening to her lecture I purchased a copy of her book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

Being the birth junkie that I am I immediately buried my nose in my signed copy.  I enjoyed the author’s comprehensive and witty approach to the topic.  Being a childbirth educator I soaked up the information, but I halted at chapter two, “Slave Women’s Contribution to Gynecology.”  I am not surprised that slave women were experimented on in the name of furthering gynecology but I admit that it had not yet crossed my mind.

What I did not know is that we owe much to our African sisters who took part in furthering the health of women of all races. So where does this story start?  It starts with J. Marion Sims.  The J. Marion Sims foundation is quoted as saying that he “was one of the most famous physicians of his time, renowned as a surgical genius and as one of the founders of operative gynecology.”  He boasts an impressive resume including servicing royalty and even President James A Garfield after he was shot in 1881. He also “served as president of the American Medical Association in 1876, as president of the International Medical Congress in 1877, and as president of the American Gynecological Society in 1880.”  There are monuments built in his honor along with a hospital named after him. There are a few important details left out of this description.  And that is that he owes his fame to ten African slaves, three of whom we have names for, Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy.  Some of the slaves actually died as a result of his surgical experiments.  Wendy Brinker has been quoted as saying,“The success of J. Marion Sims .  . . rested solely on the personal sacrifices of the enslaved African women he experimented on from 1845 to 1849.” [1]

Anarcha was the first slave woman brought to Sims by her owner because she suffered with a condition called vesicovaginal fistulas.  VVF is an abnormal fistulous tract, extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault.  This condition rendered a slave “useless” to her owner.  She was no longer able to work or give birth to more slaves.  She was often ostracized as a result of the foul smell.  VVF is not just a problem of the past. It is still found in many developing countries (usually caused by prolonged labor) and is often underreported. In industrialized nations VVF is frequently a result of doctor caused injury at the time of gynecological surgery in particular hysterectomy.

In the time of Dr. Sims, African slave women were inflicted with VVF for a few different reasons. Many slaves were malnourished and had rickets which caused their pelvis to be deformed which in turn caused prolonged labor necessitating the need for forceps or other extreme measures to extract the baby.  In addition, many African slave women were victims of violent rape or conceived babies at a very young age before their bodies were mature enough to fit a baby through the pelvis.

Many white women also suffered from this condition but Dr. Sims refused to work on them until he had perfected his surgery on African slave women.  It was commonly believed at his time that slaves had a high tolerance of pain and that white women did not.  When he finally did operate on white women, he offered them anesthesia which he never offered the slave women.  He did allow observers to watch these surgeries/experiments.  We will never know, but it is doubtful that these women were given the option of consent.

“These experiments set the stage for modern vaginal surgery. Sims devised instruments including the Sims’ speculum to gain proper exposure. A rectal examination position where a patient is on the left side with the right knee flexed against the abdomen and the left knee slightly flexed is also named after him as Sim’s position. He insisted on cleanliness. His technique using silver-wire sutures led to successful repair of a fistula, and this was reported in 1852.” [2] 

the Sims speculum

Sadly, many of the women who suffer today from this condition are modern sisters to Anarcha (in the African regions) and do not have access to the care needed to correct this condition.

Being a woman who has had a few stitches “down there,” I can’t help but feel intense gratitude for these women.  While I have never suffered from VVF, Dr. Sims and his patients are responsible for furthering the integrity of stitching materials.  I feel a quiet reverence for these women.  I don’t think they have been thanked or honored enough.  

As I read this scripture from Ephesians, I thought of the courage of Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy, and their slave sisters:

“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any [wo]man doeth, the same shall [s]he receive of the Lord, whether [s]he be bond or free.” – Ephesians 6:8

So to these women, I want to offer my heartfelt gratitude:

Thank you Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and sisters. 

I have no idea what it was like to live your life or walk your path but I will never forget your contribution.

For more information on this topic you can visit the following websites:




This post has been edited with new links since it was first written and posted in 2011.


There are many beautiful works of art depicting Mary riding a donkey as Joseph led them to Bethlehem. I never questioned whether or not Mary rode a donkey on her journey with Joseph. However, as I was researching the symbolism of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem and Christ riding a donkey as he entered Jerusalem in the Triumphal Entry, I realized that the scriptures don’t actually say that she did. She could have. It is likely that she did given it was the popular mode of transportation for people of her day and circumstances. But we really don’t know. We may never know, but we can get closer to experience what it was like to arrive in Bethlehem all those centuries ago by taking part in Israel group tours and visiting some of the holy sites for ourselves.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that it is commonly accepted. And so I wanted to delve into the symbolism of Christ riding the donkey into Jerusalem and what that may mean for our common belief that Mary rode upon a donkey too. In Egypt the donkey is a symbol for the god of evil. In Hebrew writings the donkey or ass symbolized the devil, evil, harm or non-covenant people (Lost Language of Symbolism, 307-308). What does the Son of God riding upon something that symbolized evil mean?




The answer is two fold in Christ riding upon the donkey/ass. First, it symbolized that He would overcome all evil even the devil himself. This He did with his sinless life though being sorely tempted by even Satan himself. By riding into Jerusalem in this manner He foreshadows His triumph over physical and spiritual death and His ability to grant salvation.

Secondly, riding upon the ass represented that He was the God of the Jews and Gentiles, “Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also” (Romans 3:29). In addition, the gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles as well as be “blessed and numbered among the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 10:18). The word Gentile means “the nations.” It designates people of non-Israelite lineage but also nations that are without the gospel (Bible Dictionary, 679).

He is the Lord to each one of us whether we know it or not. Christ did not come for the saint but for the sinner. He is your Savior whether or not you accept Him as such. He loves you whether or not you love Him. He waits for you even when you stray. He is merciful and makes it possible for each one of us to receive His salvation in one way or another. To Him we are numbered. He knows us.

And so Mary riding upon the back of a donkey pregnant with the babe Jesus is a beautiful foreshadowing of what was to come. So whenever I see Mary riding upon the donkey I think of the power and triumph of Christ entering Jerusalem upon a donkey with the crowds of people throwing their clothes and palm fronds in His path honoring Him as a King proclaiming,

“Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9).

These beautiful words are similar to the refrain of heavenly hosts heralding the birth of Jesus,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).


In pondering these symbols a conversation with a dear friend of mine came to mind as we talked about her approaching birth. She could feel the darkness surrounding her, trying to rob her of the joy that should accompany the birth of a child. Knowing the challenges she had faced in the past I was reminded that she had overcome them. The darkness did not beat her. She had triumphed. So if you find yourself pregnant or with a little one during this sacred time, or struggling in anyway, I hope you know that Christ will help you triumph over the evil. It is not unusual to feel weighed down physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as you overcome the evil of the world and choose to give the Gift of Life. May you seek to be ever closer to Him and feel his love surround you as you bravely move forward to your “Bethlehem.”

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27


To read The Gift of Giving Life buy your copy at your local LDS bookstore, or buy it on Amazon, where we have it at holiday pricing right now!

Jane Johnston Black

To celebrate Pioneer Day this week I compiled a history about a special midwife. A special thanks to Shani Allen Dutton, one of our readers and a descendant of Jane Johnston Black, for introducing me to the story of this courageous woman.

Jane Johnston Black lived a full and eventful life.  It was clear early on that she did not let challenges hold her back.  She was born in Lisbon, Ireland, in 1801 to a preacher of the Weslayan Methodist Church. Her mother died when she was very young and when she was just sixteen years old, her father died.  Her father was so beloved by his congregation that they insisted Jane carry on his work.  For four years she served in her father’s place as a preacher on his circuit. Before his death, he had arranged for Jane to live with the William Black family.  When their son, William returned from war, he fell in love with Jane and they were married in 1821 and had four children together. They lived with William’s father until his death in 1834. At that time, they moved to Manchester, England, where they heard the message of the restored gospel from William Clayton who baptized them in 1839.

Jane’s husband was immediately called to serve a mission in Ireland.  This was the first of many missions and assignments William would be given.  Jane travelled to America in 1840 while William was still serving in Ireland.  The journey across the ocean was difficult. At one point it seemed their boat would sink.  Jane gathered her children about her in prayer. Her son William spoke in tongues. Jane interpreted the message that they would be safe on the remainder of their voyage.

Upon arriving to Nauvoo, Sarah worked to support her family and took part in the all of the joys and trials of the saints of that time.  In her journal she shared that she “heard the Prophet Joseph Smith preach and [could] testify that he was a prophet of God.”  He called and set her apart as a midwife and doctor. She was promised success in her labors. This became her life’s work.  It was not a calling she took lightly.  She was beloved by the church leaders of that time.  It is recorded that it was her that John Taylor summoned her to care for him following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. When she asked him why he called for her he replied, “Because I knew there was none better at such a job, and wanted you to stand at the morning of the resurrection and testify to the Lord against the assassins who murdered the Prophet and his brother Hyrum.” Her husband returned to her from Ireland, only to soon be called to a mission in Canada.

Her grandson, Edward L. Black, wrote, “Jane witnessed the battle between the mobs and saints. She was the only woman on the battlefield and carried water all day between opposing lines.”  While her husband was serving another mission in Canada, the saints were forced to leave Nauvoo. This happened in two stages.  The first was a well-planned settlement in Sugar Creek with plenty of provisions. But not everyone left in this first exodus in February of 1846. The one thousand who remained in Nauvoo were considered to be among the most poor, sick, feeble or farthest along in pregnancy. Jane stayed to care for them. By September of 1846, the mobs had grown tired of waiting for these stragglers to leave and forced them to go.  Jane wrote, “Before we crossed the river a party of the mob rode up and surrounded our wagon and made a demand that I should give up what arms we had. I then had a pistol in my bosom, which I drew out and told them it was there, and that I would use it before I gave it up. They did not take it from me, but threatened to throw me in the river that night.”

When she got to Montrose, Iowa, on the other side of the Mississippi River, she buried her gun under her wagon wheel. She was given a tent as shelter for the women that were in labor.  The trauma of this final exodus had hastened their births. She recorded, “I was the mid-wife, and delivered nine babies that night.” Their provisions were sparse, “until the Lord sent quails among us. We had nothing to sweeten anything until the Lord sent honeydew, which we gathered in bushes until we got all the sweets we wanted. I also boiled maple juice and got cakes of maple sugar.” If you ever visit Nauvoo Illinois, you can see two plaques bearing her words along Parley Street’s “Trail of Tears.”

When they were preparing to leave Montrose, she was digging up her firearms that she had buried under her wagon, when the mob came and asked her what she was doing. She replied, “the Saints were to have power to resurrect and that was what I was doing. ‘Oh,’ said one, ‘she is crazy,’ so I saved our arms.”  She survived Winter Quarters and finally settle in the Salt Lake Valley in 1850. They were soon assigned to settle in different communities in southern Utah including Manti, Spring City, St. George and finally Rockville. Jane’s grandson, Edward Black, related this story of his grandmother’s bravery:

One day a burly giant Indian, face plastered with war paint and long braids decorated with feathers, walked into their little cabin. The two women [Jane and her daughter-in-law] were the only ones at home. This was about three days before I was born. Grandmother was preparing a meal over the coals in the fireplace, as stoves were not fashionable in those days. Mother was so frightened that she had a hard time to keep from fainting. The Indian asked Grandmother for something she did not have and so informed him and, to manifest his contempt, he walked to the fireplace and spat in a frying pan of meat. She had a rather heavy oak stick standing by the fireplace sharpened at one end, which she used in lifting the bake oven and other vessels from the coals. She immediately broke that stick in two across his head and chased him out to the road, punching him every step with the sharp end, and him screaming for help. Mother said the last words she heard her say to him were, ‘if you ever come to my home again you will get something worse than that.’ A few days after this, his head bandaged, he met Grandfather and congratulated him on having such a brave squaw.

President Brigham Young warned her concerning her obligation to her sisters and told her “if she would be faithful she would never lose a mother or baby.” On one occasion President Young sent a team and buggy to Manti and had her care for one of his wives in Salt Lake City. Jane had recorded that she delivered more than 3,000 babies. She did not charge for her services but was usually given some type of payment whether it was a sack of flour, a ham or both. Although she was a midwife, she often was called in place of a doctor even assisting in an amputation. She knew the different plants and herbs well and utilized them for the benefit and blessing of the sick and afflicted.

I have to admit that I do not really know if Jane felt fear or not in the more traumatic moments of her life, but what I do know is that she stood up to fear and didn’t back down. Jane Johnston Black died when she was 89 years old and is buried in Rockville, Utah.


EXPERIENCES OF A PIONEER MOTHER By Edward L. Black (accessed on Family Search)

Pearson, C. “Nine Children Were Born: A Historical Problem from the Sugar Creek Episode.” BYU Studies 21:4.

My family recently had the privilege of attending the ground breaking and dedication of land for the Pocatello, Idaho temple. This event was by invitation only, knowing it would not be possible to accommodate all who would want to physically be there. We only received an invitation because our Bishop was unable to attend with his family. We were ecstatic to be able to be there in person. The event was also broadcasted from LDS.org to area meetinghouses and homes so that all who wanted to be a part of this momentous occasion could take part.

Let me reverse a bit. I grew up in south-east Idaho and returned here after college to raise a family. It has been a heartfelt desire of mine to have a temple here. I remember as a youth leader many years ago waiting outside the baptistry in the Idaho Falls temple when I found a book detailing the history of the Idaho Falls temple. In it was included a revelation that temples would dot these valleys. I knew then that it wasn’t a matter of if but when we would have a temple in Pocatello. And when the announcement was made? I’m sure you can imagine the rejoicing!

We have had a lot of snow this past winter and so there was concern over whether the ground could handle the event given the abundance of moisture. We were asked to pray that the weather would cooperate. And as you can see, it was a beautiful day. However, we were blessed with the assistance of a local business that provided hay tarps as ground cover given the soil was still very muddy. The cool thing about this? You will have to read the article here. Even though we got there early we had to sit on the ground (hay tarps) and while this may not have been the most comfortable, I think it was actually better for my kids. They cuddled around me and gave me sweet hugs as we listened.

As expected, the event went smoothly, and a beautiful spirit prevailed. You can read more details about the ground breaking here. I loved that for the first time, leaders from other local churches were invited to attend and participate in the event. These leaders of local faiths were the first to turn the soil with Elder Wilford Anderson. That was a beautiful thing. Elder Anderson offered remarks before the dedicatory prayer in which he reminded us that the things we have in common are more important than the things we don’t have in common. There were other significant “firsts” that this groundbreaking included which you can read here. You can watch a video summary of the event here.

The most memorable part for me will be the divine, heavenly feeling I felt shining down on us. It reminded me of that feeling of heaven that enters a space when a baby is born. It is difficult to put into words, but it is as if there is a connection between earth and heaven and times seems to stop. I have blogged about the symbolism of temples and birth in the past. You can read more about that here and here. Temples and birth are also touched on by the essays “The Two Veils” and “Birth in Remembrance of Him” in our book.