Discover Vintage America - OCTOBER 2016

Divine inspiration: Bible stories

For decades, the Bible has been an inspiration for quilters who depicted favorite passages and icons from its pages in cloth: the Song of Solomon's Rose of Sharon, King David's Crown, the guiding Star of Bethlehem, as well as many other Bible inspired blocks. Because in the 1800s the Bible was one of the few books that quilters across all levels of society had access to, it is not surprising that it was the motivation for many quilted creations.

Harriet Powers' "Bible Stories" quilt. (Photo Courtesy National Museum of Natural History)

One of the most famous and unique Bible quilts from the 1800s is the "Bible Quilt" made by Harriet Powers (1837-1910) in about 1886 and exhibited by her at a grand fair in Georgia that year. Powers was born into slavery in Georgia and likely could never have imagined in her wildest dreams that her work would eventually be housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. She used a whimsical, folk art style to depict appliquéd human and animal images from both the Old and New Testament which she described as: "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuance of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob's dream, the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family."

Powers also created another appliquéd folk art Bible quilt referred to as her pictorial quilt and it is also part of the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A Smithsonian licensee reproduced Powers' Bible Quilt in China in the 1990s and with a bit of searching you too can own your own replica Bible Quilt. If you want to learn more about Harriet Powers and her quilts, pick up a copy of Kyra Hicks' This I Accomplish.

Detail of the Ruby McKim "Bible History" quilt, showing several of the blocks discussed in the article. C. 1940, Starley quilt collection. (photo by Sandra Starley)

The Bible continued to inspire quilters into the 1900s and it clearly guided early quilt entrepreneur Ruby McKim to develop a 24-block embroidered quilt pattern she suitably named the "Bible History Quilt". In 1927 in the Kansas City Star newspaper and other publications began publishing her pattern in a special weekly feature printed appropriately in the Sunday edition with simple lined embroidery patterns. The quilter would need to be sure to get all 24 editions to complete the quilt.

The newspaper series depicts an assortment of Bible stories including the well known and easy to decipher ones, such as Adam and Eve ("Father Adam" and "Mother Eve"), Noah's Ark ("The Ark"), and Baby Moses in the Bulrushes ("Moses adopted by Pharaoh's Daughter"). Also shown are several more obscure stories that may send you back to the Bible, Sunday School class, or at least to Google: a man being fed by birds (the prophet "Elijah and the Ravens"), a man releasing water from a rock (Moses and "The Rock of Living Water"), two men carrying large fruit on a pole ("The Spies") and a man with a piece of fabric or a pelt ("Gideon and the Fleece"). All the stories pictured in the McKim pattern are from the Old Testament which causes one to wonder if Mrs. McKim planned on doing a second Bible History quilt featuring images from the second half of the Bible, the New Testament.

If you are now feeling inspired to create your own Bible story quilt and wish you had a pattern, you are in luck. Ruby McKim's youngest granddaughter Merrily McKim Tuohey is offering the Bible History pattern, as well as many other wonderful McKim quilt patterns and books, at her website,

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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