1734 - 1804
Two brass candlesticks sit on two small tables flanking the
pulpit chair in John Street Methodist Church, New York City. The candlesticks belonged to
Barbara Heck. She brought them every Sunday to the early service of worship. They are
lighted at every service in the church today. The lamp which she herself was has not been
hidden under a bushel.
Barbara von Ruckle was born in County Limerick, Ireland, to
parents whose Protestant forebears had fled persecution in Germany. French soldiers under
King Louis XIV pillaged the southern part of Germany, harassing all who clung to the
truths of the Reformation. The beleaguered people scattered. In 1709 a group of 110
families fled together, getting as far as Rotterdam where it seemed the ocean would
frustrate them forever. Pitying their plight, Queen Anne of England dispatched British
ships to the Dutch seaport to salvage the refugees. The grateful people were set down in
County Limerick, while the government eased them into their new life by paying rent on the
land which they farmed for the next two decades.
In no time the recently-arrived German refugees demonstrated
their superiority to the wild native Irish peasants in all aspects of agriculture.
Resentment mounted. Rents were raised 600%. John Wesley (who made 22 trips to Ireland) was
aghast when he visited the German-speaking colony and witnessed the manner in which they
had been penalized for their industry. He wrote in his journal, "I stand amazed! Have
landlords no common sense (whether they have common humanity or no) that they will suffer
such as these to be starved away from them?"
Wesley noted too that these people were starving for the bread of
life as well. He had observed that in the fifty years since they had left Germany these
people had become "eminent for drunkenness, cursing, swearing and utter neglect of
religion." He attributed their downward slide to the fact that for fifty years they
had been without a German-speaking pastor. Wesley himself, however, was fluent in German.
He was overjoyed to see the Methodist articulation of the gospel seize the people and
change them profoundly.
At age eighteen Barbara had publicly professed her faith in Jesus
Christ. When Wesley visited the emerald isle several years later the two of them
resonated. The distinctive emphases of Methodism, rooted in Barbara, would eventually be
transplanted into the soil of the new world.
By now the gentry in Ireland were confiscating the pastureland
which the German refugees held in common. Deprived of land and afflicted with unpayable
taxes, many of them decided to emigrate to America. Barbara married Paul Hescht (the name
was anglicized to "Heck"), and together they braved a sixty-three day trip to
New York City.
New York City, in 1760, was populated with 14,000 Dutch, English,
German, Spanish and Afro-Americans. The city's spiritual carelessness startled Barbara, as
did a similar degeneration in those of the extended family (cousins, in-laws, more distant
relatives) which had emigrated with her. She pleaded with her cousin, Philip
preach. He maintained he couldn't inasmuch as he had neither church nor congregation.
"Preach in your own home, and I will gather a congregation", Barbara replied.
The mustard seed beginning consisted of four people: Barbara, her husband, a
a black female servant. They persevered. Just when it seemed that the mustard seed would
never germinate and multiply, Captain Thomas Webb appeared. He was regimental commander of
the British forces at Albany. Standing erect in his military bearing, attired in the
famous redcoat, Webb preached and the congregation grew. (In addition to his redcoat Webb
wore a green patch over one eye. He had been wounded at the Battle of the Plains of
Abraham, when Quebec fell to the British.) Soon the congregation had outgrown the private
home where it was meeting. A church-building would have to be built, and Barbara herself
designed it, the first Methodist church-building in the new world. At the service of
dedication the preacher expounded Hosea 10:12:
Sow for yourselves righteousness,
reap the fruit of steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground,
for it is time to seek the Lord.
This building was soon outgrown, and in 1768 another was raised
in New York City. The seats had no backs and the gallery was reached by means of a ladder.
Hundreds thronged it every Sunday.
When the American War of Independence loomed, Barbara and her
husband, together with their five children, left New York City for a farm in Camden, near
Lake Champlain. Angry neighbours who supported the coming revolution burned them out,
destroying all their livestock and forcing them off the land. Once again the Heck family
moved, this time to the Montreal area. A few years later they settled in the region of
what would become Brockville. Compared to New York City their habitat was a wilderness.
Undaunted, however, Barbara commenced her mustard seed sowing all over again. It took her
years to gather enough people to form the first Methodist class in Canada. The people she
had brought together ministered out of their own resources for five years; only then did a
circuit-riding saddlebag preacher arrive to lead them.
When she was seventy years old one of her three sons found
Barbara sitting in her chair, her German bible open on her lap. The woman who had never
spoken English well, yet who was the mother of English Methodism in Canada, had gone home.
Victor A. Shepherd