Thursday, January 18, 2007

True Story of an Heirloom Quilt

Born in the 1850s and married in the 1870s, a young Canadian woman had the world at her fingertips. Her two beautiful children, a girl and a boy, were growing and thriving. As a good Christian mother, she instructed her children in the skills necessary for daily living, such as sewing, cooking, home maintenance, and care of the farm animals.

She took equal care to help her son and daughter develop the strength of character that would make them successful, happy, and productive adults. They were taught to be responsible, honest, diligent, reliable, considerate, and self-controlled.

This young mother also took seriously her responsibility to be a moral and religious instructor for her children. Each day she and her young son and daughter studied Bible stories and discussed the life lessons to be learned from them. As a part of this study, they began to construct a quilt illustrating their lessons. Young minds and hands carefully designed quilt blocks with figures representing the Bible characters they studied. David and Goliath came alive in colorful thread depictions. Through the laborious stitching of these young believers, Joseph was sold into slavery and baby Moses was hidden from those who would harm him. Young fingers painstakingly stitched 24 Old Testament stories onto 24 muslin rectangles.

Finally, mother and children stitched the stories together with soft blue strips of connecting fabric into a lovely mosaic. They backed and quilted the resulting unique artwork, and their beautiful Bible story mosaic was complete.

These diligent and obedient children expected to sleep warmly at night for years snuggled in the fruit of their labors. The mother envisioned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and possibly great- great-grandchildren, living in that impossible-to-imagine 21st century, who would treasure this tangible reminder of the lessons learned at Mother’s knee. These children of the future would learn of God’s wonderful grace and mercy to his children through the illustrations carefully stitched by children of the 1800s. These children of the future would be reminded of the great stories of the Bible as they slept under the quilt made by children who would grow up to be their ancestors.

Alas, it was not to turn out as they expected.

One late winter afternoon in the 1880s, the children were sent to the field to bring in the livestock and see to their care. A cold wind blew the accumulated snow around them as they trudged about in the fields completing their chores. The snow thickened, and darkness fell early as light struggled to penetrate the clouds and the heavy snowfall. In the gathering darkness, the little girl and her brother became lost. They grew tired and discouraged when they could not find their way to the warmth of their home.

The young parents spent an agonizing night searching, praying, and calling the names of their children over and over into the cold and dark emptiness of the fields surrounding the home. In the early light of dawn, a father, exhausted and nearly frozen from searching all night, stumbled across the frozen body of his young son. In the boy’s protective embrace was the body of his sister.

Months and years passed. No more children were born into this family.

Months and years passed. The 20th century began.

Months and years passed. The father died and was mourned by his middle-aged widow.

Months and years passed. The mother, now in her 90s, aware of the ever-diminishing hourglass of her lifetime, took the quilt out and lovingly, with gnarled and aged fingers, traced the designs her children had stitched so long ago. She thought of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, never born, who never had opportunity to sleep swaddled in the Bible. As was her wont throughout her life, she prayed for guidance.

When she called her young pastor to her home, she told him, “You have been God’s messenger for me in my loneliness since you came to our church. I want you to have this quilt.” She told him the story I have just told you.

When this young pastor later married and fathered three sons, this quilt warmed them as they slept. As they fell asleep each night his boys saw the illustrated Bible stories and learned more about God’s unconditional love and grace.

Today I had the privilege of seeing and photographing that beautiful Bible Story Quilt. 130 years after it was created, my sister became its proud guardian. The pastor, to whom the quilt was bequeathed back in the 1940’s, has also gone to his reward in Heaven, and the quilt has now been entrusted to his daughter-in-law, my sister.

The passage of years and the passing of the immediate participants in this story have left us with scanty details. Getting the information about the quilt second hand, as it were, we are hampered with a scarcity of specifics.

The facts that we KNOW are these: the quilt was made in the mid 1870s. The children who stitched it died in a snowstorm before they became adults. The mother was from Canada, later from Michigan. The lady treasured this token of her children into her last years. The quilt was given to the pastor in the 1940s.

Since the pastor died before we knew of the quilt and since his children heard the story when they were too young to recall details, we do NOT KNOW these things: the name of the mother and children, the exact dates of any of the events, and the details of the children’s and their father’s deaths.

I photographed the entire quilt and each individual panel. Note the attention to detail and the childish stitching and spelling on these examples.


Anonymous said...

I would be interested in seeing more of the squares. My grandmother made a quilt that is very similar - simple outline figures done in chain stich embroidery. The quilt I have has 12 squares separated by blue strips. You can see my quilt at:

Anonymous said...

That URL is

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