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).

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Wednesday 23 November 2022

The former Church of Saint Francis on Saint Francis street in Rethymnon now hosts the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

This is the final week in Ordinary Time this year in the Calendar of the Church, the week between the Feast of Christ the King and Advent Sunday.

Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Clement, Bishop of Rome, ca 100.

Saint Clement was active as an elder in the Church in Rome towards the end of the first century and is said to have been a disciple of the apostles. He wrote an epistle to the Corinthians which witnessed to ministry in the Church and concerned the authority and duties of the ministers. That letter clearly showed the authority of one senior priest intervening in a conflict in another Church and is full of valuable information about the history of the developing Church and its ministry at this time. His hierarchical view of Church order set a future pattern for episcopal practice and ministry.

Clement seems to have been president of a council of presbyters which governed the Church in Rome, and his letters are clearly written on their behalf. A fourth-century document has Clement being exiled to the Crimea where he was then put to death by being thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, a reflection or thought from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Franciscan Capuchin Church of Saint Anthony of Padua the only Roman Catholic church in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 21: 12-19 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.’

A statue of Saint Francis in the gardens of the Franciscan Capuchin Friary in Chania, the only Roman Catholic monastic house in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nikos Kazantzakis, 3:

Last month marked the 65th anniversary of the death of the Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis in Freiburg, Germany, on 26 October 1957.

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is a giant of modern Greek literature, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on nine separate occasions. His books include Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Captain Michalis (also published as Freedom or Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs and philosophical essays such as The Saviours of God: Spiritual Exercises.

His fame spread in the English-speaking world because of the film adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Kazantzakis prefaces his semi-autobiographical novel, Report to Greco, with a prayer: ‘Three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers: 1, I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot. 2, Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break. 3, Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!’ The prayer, said to be adapted from Saint Francis, is also quoted in Saint Francis (also published as The Poor Man of God).

Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the few Western saints from the period after the great schism who is also revered in the Eastern Church. Many Franciscan churches were built in Crete during the Venetian period, including churches in Iraklion, Rethymnon, Chania and Neapolis, and Petros Philargos, a friar of the Franciscan community in Iraklion who was born in Neapolis in eastern Crete, later became Pope Alexander V.

The most important church in Venetian Rethymnon was Saint Francis, which stands on Ethnikís Antistaseos Street, almost at the junction of Tsouderon Street, where I have sometimes stayed during my times in Rethymnon. The church now hosts the Archaeological Museum of Rethymnon.

The Church of Saint Anthony of Padua, on the corner of Mesolongíou Street and Salamínas Street in Rethymnon is run by the Franciscan Capuchins and is the only Roman Catholic Church in Rethymnon. I have also visited the Franciscan Capuchin church and house in Chania.

Saint Francis was popular in the Orthodox community of Crete and by the end of the 14th century was represented in Orthodox Churches throughout the Island. It is mainly due to the fictionalised biography by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Poor Man of God, also published as God’s Pauper and Saint Francis, that Saint Francis is known throughout the world as ‘God’s Pauper.’

This morning, I am reflecting on some other thoughts expressed by Kazantzakis in God’s Pauper:

‘What is love? It is not simply compassion, not simply kindness. In compassion there are two: the one who suffers and the one who feels compassion. In kindness there are two: the one who gives and the one who receives. But in love there is only one; the two join, unite, become inseparable. The 'I' and the 'you' vanish. To love means to lose oneself in the beloved.’

‘What do you have to fear? Nothing. Whom do you have to fear? No one. Why? Because whoever has joined forces with God obtains three great privileges: omnipotence without power, intoxication without wine, and life without death.’

‘I pity the village where no one is a saint, but I also pity the village where everyone is a saint!’

<< Δεν υπάρχει πράμα πιο κοντά μας από τον ουρανό. Η γής είναι κάτω από τα πόδια μας και την πατούμε, ο ουρανός είναι μέσα μας. >> ‘Nothing is nearer to us than heaven. The earth is beneath our feet and we tread upon it, but heaven is within us.’

‘What is the definition of heaven? Complete happiness. But how can anyone be completely happy when he looks out from heaven and sees his brothers and sisters being punished in hell? How can paradise exist if the inferno exists also? That is why I say—and let this sink deep down into your minds, my sisters—that either we shall all be saved, all of us together, or else we shall all be damned. If a person is killed at the other end of the earth, we are killed; if a person is saved, we are saved.’

‘To do the will of God means to do my own most deeply hidden will. Within even the most unworthy of men there is a servant of God, asleep.’

‘I had taken up my quill to begin writing many times before now, but I always abandoned it quickly: each time I was overcome with fear. Yes, may God forgive me, but the letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly. They are sly, shameless demons – and dangerous! You open the inkwell, release them: they run off – and how will you ever get control of them again! They come to life, join, separate, ignore your commands, arrange themselves as they like on the paper – black, with tails and horns. You scream at them and implore them in vain: they do as they please. Prancing, pairing up shamelessly before you, they deceitfully expose what you did not wish to reveal, and they refuse to give voice to what is struggling, deep within your bowels, to come forth and speak to mankind.’

<< Άγιος θα πει αυτός που απαρνήθηκε όλα τα επίγεια – κι όλα τα ουράνια. >> ‘Holy will he be called who renounced all earthly – and all heavenly.’

‘I am not going to kill sin by killing the sinners; I am not going to wage war against evildoers and infidels. I shall preach love, and I shall love; I shall preach concord, and shall practice brotherly love toward everyone in the world.’

‘Because what God wants, that, and only that, is also what we want—but we don't know it. God comes and awakens our souls, revealing to them their real, though unknown, desire. This is the secret, Brother Leo. To do the will of God means to do my own most deeply hidden will.’

The magnificent doorway of the former Saint Francis Church and its composite columns are unique in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)


Creator and Father of eternity, whose martyr Clement bore witness with his blood to the love he proclaimed and the gospel that he preached: give us thankful hearts as we celebrate your faithfulness, revealed to us in the lives of your saints, and strengthen us in our pilgrimage as we follow your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God our redeemer, whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Clement: so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice that our lives, broken and offered with his, may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Prophetic Voice of the Nation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Bishop Matthew Mhagama, from the Diocese of South-West Tanganyika in the Anglican Church of Tanzania.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Lord, help church leaders to stand faithfully as a prophetic voice to the nations.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Inside the Franciscan Capuchin Church of Saint Anthony of Padua in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Inside the former Church of Saint Francis in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)