23 November 2022

Barbara Heck and Philip Embury:
Founders of American Methodism

The Embury Heck Memorial Church in Ballingrane, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Methodist church at Ballingrane, near Rathkeale, Co Limerick, is known as the Embury Heck Memorial Church, recalling Philip Embury (1729-75) and Barbara Heck (1734-1804), two key figures in the foundation of Methodism in America. In 1709, 110 refugee families arrived in Ireland, fleeing French persecution in the Palatinate in Southern Germany. Many of these families settled on the Southwell estate lands around Rathkeale, at Courtmatrix, Killeheen and Ballingrane.

The Palatine people in the Rathkeale area played a formative role in the development of Methodism. Early in 1749, Robert Swindells was the first Methodist preacher to visit Limerick. Later that year, another Methodist preacher, Thomas Williams, came to Limerick. Philip Guier, the Burgomeister and schoolmaster of Ballingrane, and Thomas Walsh, from Ballylin, near Rathkeale, both became Methodist local preachers.

Walsh worked with John Wesley in Ireland and England until his tragic death at the early age of twenty-eight years. Guier remained a local preacher among the Palatines in west Limerick and became known as the man ‘who drove the devil out of Ballingrane.’ Methodist societies were formed in Ballingrane, Courtmatrix, Killeheen, Pallaskenry, Kilfinnane and Adare. John Wesley first visited the Palatines during his sixth Irish visit in 1756. He visited Ballingrane Ballingrane thirteen times between 1756 and 1779 and also visited Adare. He noted that in the Palatine communities there was ‘no cursing or swearing, no Sabbath-breaking, no drunkenness, no alehouse,’ and that ‘their diligence turns all their land into a garden.’ Originally, there were three Methodist church in the area, and the congregations were almost exclusively Palatine in origin. In the generations that followed, many of their descendants were forced to emigrate. The Palatine families who left the Southwell estate for New York in 1760 included Barbara (née Ruttle) Heck and her cousin Philip Embury, who had been a local preacher in Ballingrane.

Philip Embury was born in Ballingrane in 1729 and converted to Methodism following a religious experience in 1752. A carpenter by trade, he became a Methodist lay preacher and married Margaret Switzer from Rathkeale. They set sail from the Customs House Dock in Limerick in 1760. His cousin Barbara (née Ruttle), who was on the same emigrant ship, was born in 1734 and was now married to Paul Heck. In New York, Barbara Heck was dismayed by the spiritual carelessness she found among the people and pleaded with her cousin Philip Embury to preach to them. Philip maintained he could not preach as he had neither church nor congregation. But Barbara responded: ‘Preach in your own home and I will gather a congregation.’ Only five people attended that first gathering. But the congregation grew, and the first Methodist chapel was established in 1768 on the site of the present John Street Church, in the heart of the business district in New York.

As the Methodist presence grew in New York, John Wesley was asked to send preachers from England. In 1770, some of the New York Palatines, led by Philip Embury, moved to the Camden Valley on the boundary of New York and Vermont, almost 300 km north of New York City. There he continued to work in the linen trade during the week and to preach every Sunday. He organised the first Methodist society among Irish emigrants at Ashgrove, near Camden Valley, but he died suddenly in 1775 after a mowing accident. Barbara Heck survived and settled at what is now Prescott. She had played a pioneering role in Methodism in three different areas. The Methodist Churches in the US have since grown to their present size of over 10 million. Barbara Heck, her husband and their five children left New York for a farm in Camden but were forced off their land and moved to Montreal where she established a home for Methodism and founded the first Methodist congregation in Canada. She died in 1804 with her Bible in her lap. Today, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck are counted among the founders of Methodism in North America. A pair of candlesticks that belonged to Barbara Heck are still lit every week in the John Street Church.

The Embury Heck Memorial Church in Ballingrane was built in 1766 and is the last remaining Methodist church in the Rathkeale area. The church retains much of its original form, despite additions, and is enhanced by features such as the coloured glass, lancet, sash windows and the fading limestone plaque, which reads: ‘Embury and Heck Memorial Church 1766, Renovated 1885.’ The baptismal font is made from an original rafter from the kitchen of Barbara Heck’s old home. The Revd Dr William Crook (1824-97), who is buried in the churchyard in Ballingrane, brought greetings from the Irish Methodist Conference to the American Methodist Church when it celebrated its centenary in 1866. The headstones in the churchyard display many Palatine family names, including Baker, Bovenizer, Delemage, Doupe, Miller, Raynard, Ruttle, Shier, Sparling, Switzer and Teskey.

Biographical Note (p. 261):

Patrick Comerford, former adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin, is former priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale group of parishes (Church of Ireland),and former Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

• ‘Barbara Heck and Philip Embury: Founders of American Methodism’, is published in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311, 266 pp), pp 109-111. The book was launched by Dr Liam Chambers in the Limerick Diocesan Centre last night (Tuesday 22 November 2022).

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