Jump directly to the Content


Died: Sam Butcher, Artist Who Created Precious Moments

His porcelain figurines sold millions while he built a church inspired by the Sistine Chapel.
Died: Sam Butcher, Artist Who Created Precious Moments
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source image courtesy of Precious Moments
Sam Butcher

Sam Butcher sometimes struggled to explain why Precious Moments figurines, his signature artistic creation, became such a cultural phenomenon. Half a million people joined special collectors’ clubs to get them. The manufacturer released 25 to 40 new ones every year. And Butcher, an art school dropout, earned tens of millions of dollars in annual royalties.

“I’m still … trying to figure out what it’s all about,” he once said. “I’m just an artist. I just license my art.”

But if you asked the women and men who bought the porcelain statuettes—rosy-cheeked children with teardrop-shaped eyes that filled mantels, shelves, tables, and curio cabinets—they could tell definitely you.

“They’re cute,” an Illinois woman explained to the Chicago Tribune. “And they have an inspirational title that has a lot of everyday meaning.”

A man in East Tennessee who collected more than 200 with his wife said he found the figurines irresistible. He always had to pick them up to read the titles on the bottom. One was called “God Loveth a Cheerful Giver,” and it was a little girl with a wagon full of puppies to give away. Another said “I Will Make You Fishers of Men,” and it was a boy with a pole and line, hook snagged in the waist of his smaller friend’s pants.

“I really like the little sayings,” the retired postal worker told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

A woman at a collectors’ club at a Lutheran church in Moline, Iowa, said the figurines were just “silly things” that nevertheless “grow on you,” but her friend, who started collecting Precious Moments pieces after she got her first as an anniversary gift in 1979, said she felt they were more than that.

Each had a special meaning. Each connected to something that she treasured.

A figurine could memorialize an occasion or mark the importance of a relationship.

A collector who had shelves specially built for her Precious Moments figurines in her home in Alabama told the Montgomery Advertiser that she bought one for each of her three daughters. Another topped the cake for her and her husband’s 25th anniversary.

The figurines could somehow capture the way people felt about the very biggest things in their lives.

“From motherhood and family to friendship and encouragement to love and marriage to birthdays and graduation,” said a woman in Olathe, Kansas, “there is a Precious Moments figurine to help you express your emotions.”

A teenage collector with cancer bought hers as she went through treatment. She said they just made her feel better. A woman in Ohio said she got attached to each one individually, because “it feels like falling in love each time you buy another figurine.”

A collector in Hanover, Pennsylvania, got her first on her honeymoon. She collected another 136 in the next six years, and displayed them all in her living room.

“When you look at them,” she told her local newspaper in 1987, “they are just so precious! There’s no other word.”

Sam Butcher, the artist behind all of that, died on May 20. He was 85.

“He was an artist of love, a messenger of the divine, a shepherd of miracles,” the family-written obituary said. “He taught us that the best mode of transportation through life is often a leap of faith, and that after you leap and before you land, is God.”

Butcher was born on January 1, 1939, in Jackson, Michigan, to Evelyn and Leon Butcher. His mother’s family was from Lebanon. His father was an auto mechanic. Most of the family was mechanically inclined, but young Sam liked to draw, according to a Precious Moments company history. The family moved to Redding, California, when he was a boy, and he loved drawing so much he would salvage rolls of paper from a factory dump near his home.

His artistic talents were encouraged by a teacher named Rex Moravec and his mother, who pushed him to go to art school. Butcher got a scholarship to California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, but dropped out in 1962 when his wife got pregnant and they couldn’t afford a doctor.

They had a second child the year after that, and then five more. Butcher got a job as a janitor, dishwasher, and short-order cook at a restaurant he remembered to the end of his life with revulsion.

At that time, Butcher’s life took a spiritual turn. His wife, Katie, wanted to raise their kids in a church, so they attended a Baptist service near their home. The first Sunday, Butcher accidentally stole a hymnal. The second Sunday, he returned it, had a conversation with the minister, a man named Royal Blue, and committed his life to Christ.

The minister also helped Butcher find work that might feel more meaningful. The young artist got a job at the international offices of Child Evangelism Fellowship and moved his growing family back to his home state of Michigan.

Butcher started in shipping but soon got himself promoted to the art department. He did illustrations and comic strips and worked on a kids TV show, where he got the nickname “Quick Draw Sam.”

Butcher left in 1974, partnering with his friend Bill Biel to start a greeting card company they called Jonathan & David. Butcher started developing the trademark style—cherubic kids with soulful eyes in nostalgic and sentimental scenes—and quickly saw there was a hungry market. At a convention in Anaheim, California, Christian bookstore owners ordered so many cards that Butcher and Biel had to get help from vendors at neighboring booths to write down all the orders.

Eugene Freedman certainly saw their potential. The CEO of a giftware company called Enesco Imports, he saw Butcher’s drawings at a convention in 1978 and knew he wanted to turn them into porcelain figurines.

Butcher was initially resistant but allowed Freedman to work with a Japanese sculptor to produce a prototype. The first figurine was two kids sitting back to back on a stump, called “Love One Another.” When Butcher saw it, he later recalled, he got on his knees, took it in his arms, and cried.

They had a deal. Working with the sculptor, Yasuhei Fujioka, Enesco and Jonathan & David turned 21 of Butcher’s drawings into figurines, manufactured the little statuettes, imported them to the US, and started selling them.

They expected to be successful. But they were shocked at just how successful.

“It was really strange to me at the beginning,” Bob Feller, who became director of Enesco’s Precious Moments division, later said. “We had a gift line that turned into a phenomenon. People got so involved. We couldn’t believe it.”

In 1980, they launched Precious Moments collectors’ clubs, offering members limited edition figurines if they paid a membership fee, plus the chance to meet with sales reps, hear about forthcoming figurines, and connect with like-minded collectors in their areas. In the first six months, 300,000 people joined.

By 1995, there were more than 500,000 Precious Moments club members in the United States and more than 30,000 shops selling the figurines at prices ranging from $25 to $300. The following year, Enesco made more than $200 million on Precious Moments products, according to The Wall Street Journal. Butcher got more than $50 million in royalties, with a guaranteed annual minimum of $15 million.

With his sudden success—and sudden wealth—Butcher decided he was going to build a chapel. He was inspired by a trip to Italy, where he saw Michelangelo’s art at the Sistine Chapel.

Butcher wanted to be, he said, “an artist in the service of the Lord.”

He didn’t know where he should build it. So, when he got back to the US, he asked God to guide him and went on an impromptu cross-country road trip. Late at night on a highway about 200 miles east of Oklahoma City, with nearly 300 miles still to go to St. Louis, Butcher had a feeling.

“Something very holy was in the car,” he said. “I was so affected that I drove off and parked at the side of the road. I just remember it was very, very quiet and amazing.”

The next day, he learned he was in Carthage, Missouri, found a real estate agent, and bought 17 acres of property. He built a church and started to paint it: 84 murals, covering 5,000 square feet, all with biblical themes done in the Precious Moments style.

He designed 30 stained glass windows. The 15 on the east side depicted Psalm 23. The 15 on the west, the Beatitudes. He ordered marble for the floors from Italy, crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia.

The most ambitious part was probably the ceiling. It was 1,400 square feet, 30 feet off the ground. He spent about 500 hours on his back on a scaffold, painting Precious Moments angels and puffy clouds.

It was “very difficult,” Butcher told the Kansas City Star. “Very, very difficult.”

He felt a deep discouragement come over him, but, as he later told one of his sons, God gave him the strength to continue.

Newspapers in the area started to refer to him as “the Michelangelo of Missouri.” Where Michelangelo painted the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Butcher put a host entering paradise. One looked like his father driving a pink convertible, another like his teacher Rex. There were children he’d known and soldiers who’d died and lots of angels, and all of them had the teardrop-shaped eyes that so many found so moving.

“I think he had to be inspired by God to paint all this,” a visitor from Coweta, Oklahoma, told one reporter.

At the same time, Butcher’s personal life got very hard. Before he could finish a home for his family to live in in Carthage, his marriage ended in divorce. Butcher decided he wouldn’t move into the house by himself, so he stayed in the garage, where he painted until he fell asleep.

Then, the year after the chapel opened, one of his eldest sons died in a car accident.

“I really, really was shook,” Butcher later said. “I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I continued to ask the Lord to give me an answer, to tell me why this had happened.”

He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His children took over the day-to-day operation of Precious Moments. Attacks of depression grew more frequent.

After a second son died in 2012, one lasted around a year.

“I had anxiety, hatred, bitterness, fear. All that filled the room in my heart,” he told The Joplin Globe. “I couldn’t see the Lord anymore.”

One day, while lying in a hospital bed, however, he felt an amazing sense of calm come over him. He couldn’t see God. But God could see him. The Lord, he said, reminded him of the time that he came into his life, back at that Baptist church in Northern California, and he felt better.

Butcher started painting again after that. But he turned to a new style, painting works of modern art. He experimented with cubism and primitivism, inspired by Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. There were no teardrop-shaped eyes in the new paintings. Nothing sentimental. Instead, thick-bodied men and women wearing few clothes danced, played, and slept in fields of flowers.

Butcher got so absorbed in the painting, he said, he would sometimes forget to eat or even button up his shirt.

“I’m just a messy old artist,” Butcher said. “I just really wanted to serve the Lord.”

As he was dying, Butcher told his family he was with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and it was beautiful.

He was preceded in death by his ex-wife, Katie, and their two sons, Phillip and Timothy. Butcher is survived by his children Jon, Tammy, Debbie, Don, and Heather.

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next