Barbara Heck: The Mother of American Methodism

From a series entitled 'Saintly Women of Methodism' published in the Christian Messenger, 1902

Transcription of Sketch in the Christian Messenger by Rev. Albert A. Birchenough

Beyond the waters of the great Atlantic the memory of Barbara Heck is enshrined in the hearts of American Methodists. After a long interval of a century since she worked and prayed for the welfare of her fellows, her name is as familiar as a household word. She was closely associated with the origin and earlier history of Methodism in the Western world. Barbara Heck was of German extraction, and was born in Hibernia.

About the year 1700 a Colony of German Protestants of the Lutheran faith were driven by their cruel papal oppressors from their fatherland. A large number found shelter in the counties of Kerry and Limerick. Having no resident pastors, and being strangers in a distant land, they sank into a state of spiritual destitution. Providentially they were visited by John Wesley and some of his itinerant preachers. Through their exertions hundreds of the German exiles were savingly converted, and a great moral change took place in the Palatine villages of Ireland. Amongst the numerous converts was an intelligent carpenter, named Philip Embury, who received from Wesley a commission to preach the Gospel to his fellow refugees. Wesley also was wishful that Embury should enter the ranks of the Methodist Itinerancy, and for some time his name was on the conferential “list of reserve.” At the expiration of the fifty years’ lease which had been granted the refugees and their successors, a lordly landowner made exorbitant demands in negotiating a renewal of the lease. Embury, the carnenter-preacher and several of his religious neighbour’s, resented these excessive financial conditions by leaving their temporary home in the Emerald Isle and sailing from Limerick in the year 1760 for the city of New York.

Barbara Ruckle was born in the year 1734 at Ruckle Hill, in the neighbourhood of Ballingran, in the beautiful county of Limerick. At the early age of eighteen she experienced a change of heart, and united herself with the Methodist Church. Throughout her long and beautiful life she never lost the evidence of the witnessing Spirit to her adoption into the family of God. Her German Bible was her daily companion and the rule of her life. Before marriage her eminent qualities of mind and consistent character exalted her to the position of a monitress in connection with the little Methodist commune of Western Ireland.

Shortly after her marriage with Paul Heck, and in the year 1765, she, along with her husband, her brother Paul Ruckle, and other families from the Palatine villages arrived safely in America. Shortly after her settlement in New York Barbara Heck was deeply grieved when she ascertained that several of those who had preceded her from Ireland had lost their spirituality and had become irreligious. They had so far degenerated that they were mingling with the frivolities of the world, and were freely indulging in card-playing and other questionable amusements.

Fired with righteous indignation this “pious mother in Israel” went to a neighbouring house where she found a circle of retrograding Methodists engaged in card-playing. Mrs. Heck seized the cards and threw them into the fire. At the same time she gave them a severe reproof for their inconsistencies, and their departure from their “first love.” Without hesitancy she proceeded to the residence of her kinsman, Philip Embury, and with tears she entreated him “to preach to us, or we shall all go to hell together, and God will require our blood at your hands.” Although Philip Embury had joined the membership of the Lutheran Church, and continued his daily devotions at the family altar, yet the environment and the new conditions of commercial life had damped his ardour, and had repressed his spiritual zeal. During the first six years that he spent in America he had been prevented by force of circumstances from serving the Lord in the same public capacity as he had in the villages of Ireland.

The pointed appeal of his kinswoman had its intended effect in awakening Embury to the perils of their spiritual condition. As if to justify his conduct, and to excuse himself from preaching, he tremblingly declined by saying: “I cannot preach, for I have neither a house nor congregation.” Barbara Heck would take no objections, and she replied: “Preach in your own house first and to your own company.”

Philip Embury, however, consented, and he accordingly preached his first sermon in America “in his own hired house” to a small congregation of five persons, who were Barbara Heck and her husband, John Lawrence, Mrs. Emburv, and an African maid servant who was known as “Betty.” It is somewhat significant that in this first Methodist service held in America the descendants of Ham should be represented by a negress. She was the first-fruits of a great spiritual harvest, and betokened the formation of a vast Methodist Church amongst the coloured peoples of the American continent.

The house of Philip Embury became too small to accommodate the increasing congregation, which had been gathered mainly through the exertions of Barbara Heck, and it became necessary to hire a room in which the services were subsequently held. A society class was formed consisting of twelve persons, three of whom were bandsmen in His Majesty’s XVI. Regiment. These three soldiers were made “exhorters,” and assisted Embury in preaching the Gospel. In the course of a few months, from the time of the removal of the church from Embury’s house to the “Upper Room,” the congregation had grown larger than the holding capacity of its second sanctuary, and they hired the “Rigging Loft,” which they fitted up as a place of worship.

Some three months after the opening of the far-famed “Rigging Loft” the infant community was startled by the presence of a gentleman amongst the worshippers, attired in the military uniform of a captain of the King’s forces. Having lost one of his eyes in the serving of his country he wore a green shade, which gave him a sinister appearance. The more timid of the flock thought that his presence meant mischief, and that he had come “to spy out their liberties.” The more curious-minded wondered what the motive of this war-like individual was that prompted him to enter this insignificant Methodist meeting-house. When, however, they saw him reverently kneel in prayer and otherwise engage with them in the worship of God their fears were lost in praise. At the close of the service he made himself known as Captain Webb. It was ascertained that he was an officer of the British Army who had been severely wounded at the storming of Quebec, and had been appointed Barrack-Master at Albany in the State of New York. He was also a fellow-Methodist, for he had been converted in the city of Bristol about the year 1764 through the earnest preaching of John Wesley. The birthplace of Captain Webb is concealed beneath the veil of obscurity. One distinguished American authority speaks of him as being a compatriot of Barbara Heck and Philip Embury.

Captain Webb was cordially welcomed by Embury, Barbara Heck, and the little band of warm-hearted Methodists. Having been a lay preacher in England he was invited to assist in the services. With his sword lying beside the open Bible it became Captain Webb’s custom to preach not fewer than three times a week. The zeal of this soldier of the cross, and the charm of his eloquence, along with his appearance in the pulpit in full regimentals, increased his wonderful popularity. The novelty of a soldier preaching in a scarlet coat and wearing the full regimental badges of a military officer brought greater numbers together than the “Rigging Loft” could hold.

Barbara Heck was greatly encouraged because sinners were being convinced and converted, and were being added to the Methodist Society. In consequence of the frequent accessions to their numbers, and the increase of those who were wishful to worship with them, the “Rigging Loft” became too small, and they consulted together respecting the desirability of erecting a Methodist meeting-house. Comparatively, the members of the society were but few in number, and they belonged to the poorer classes. As a church they were without prestige, influence, and wealth. After consideration they determined to commend their cause to God in prayer. While Barbara Heck was earnestly pleading at the throne of heavenly grace, her soul was filled “with an inexpressible sweetness,” and she received the assurance that I the Lord will do it. At the same time a plan for preliminary preparation for the erection of a house of prayer was suggested to her mind while she was kneeling in fervid supplication. Barbara Heck submitted her proposals to her fellow-Methodists, and urged the plea “Let us rise and build.” An appeal was made to the general public seeking “the assistance of Christian friends in order to enable them to build a small house for the purpose, not doubting but the God of all consolation will abundantly bless all such as are willing to contribute to the same.” The Mayor of New York and Captain Webb headed the subscription list, and the sum of £418 3s. 6d. was raised. At that time the population of New York did not exceed twenty thousand people.

Paul Heck and seven other trustees were appointed. They purchased a building site in John Street from the widow of a deceased clergyman, on which they built the first Methodist Chapel of the Western world, and which was the “cradle” of American Methodism. This humble structure was sixty feet in length by fifty-two feet in breadth. The walls thereof were built of stone, which was freely covered with a coating of tinted plaster. At the time of its erection the American law forbade the building of conventicles, consequently the chapel was provided with a fireplace and chimney to give it the appearance of a dwelling-house and to avoid the legal prohibition. The gallery had no breastwork, and was reached by means of a ladder. The seats consisted of plain forms without backs. The woodwork was executed by Embury and a co-Methodist. In order to reduce the expense good Barbara Heck whitewashed the walls of the humble tabernacle of which she was the architect, and which was largely the result of her earnest prayers. The floor of the chapel was sprinkled with snow-white sand. On October 30th, 1768, the first chapel in the world that bore the name of Wesley, and also the first Methodist meeting house of America, was solemnly dedicated to the service of Almighty God. As was most fitting the opening service was preached by Philip Embury, who said in his own characteristic style, “The best consecration of a pulpit is to preach a good sermon in it.”

Within twelve months after the opening of Wesley Chapel it was freed from debt and was speedily filled with eager listeners who were hungering and thirsting for the living God.

While the chapel was being built an appeal was sent to the Rev. John Wesley asking him to send missionaries to America. At the Leeds Conference of 1769 Wesley introduced the “pressing call from our brethren at New York, who have built a preaching-house, to come over and help them.” He further asked, “Who is willing to go?” Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor expressed their willingness. Upon their arrival in New York in the autumn of 1769, they found a Methodist Society of over a hundred persons, a chapel with a seatage capacity for seven hundred worshippers, and a regular congregation, only one-third of which could be accommodated within the sacred building. It was decided that each of the two preachers should preach four times a week. It is interesting to note the following regulations. Each of the preachers was to receive as salary three guineas per quarter; board and lodging were to be provided by the friends; shaving was to be met by an extra allowance, and the quarterly stipend was to be supplemented by the occasional present of a new hat. For correspondence, literary purposes, and sermonising “one quire of writing-paper and no more” was the stipulated allowance. During the following year a parsonage was provided adjoining Wesley Chapel, the furnishing of which cost the modest sum of £15. Several articles were presented, and a number of others were simply loaned, including four spoons.

In the year 1771 Francis Asbury and Richard Wright were welcomed “like angels of God.“ Asbury introduced the Circuit system in America by preaching in taverns, court-houses, private dwellings, and in the open air. Two years after Asbury’s arrival the first Methodist Conference was held in America.

Within a century after Embury preached his first sermon to the congregation that had been gathered by Barbara Heck to the little cottage in Barrack Street, New York, no fewer than eight millions of people were under the spiritual power of Methodist teaching. Dr. Stevens, of the Methodist Episcopal Church of America, says: “Embury’s little congregation of five persons in his own house has multiplied to thousands of societies, from the northern-most settlements of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, from Nova Scotia to California.”

The historic “Rigging Loft” has been destroyed to make way for city improvements, while walking-sticks and other mementoes have been made of the timbers of which it was built. On the site of John Street Wesley Chapel – the cradle of American Methodism – a more imposing church was built to commemorate the devoted life and faithful labours of Barbara Heck.


Christian Messenger 1902/263

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