Heck, Barbara (1734–1804), methodist, was born in Ballingrane, Co. Limerick, daughter of Sebastian Ruckle (surname later found also as Ruttle ), tenant farmer on the Southwell estate, and his wife Margaret (née Embury). The Ruckles, Emburys, and Hecks were part of a group of Rhineland immigrants, popularly known as Palatines, who settled in Ireland in 1709. Barbara was literate in English and her early education probably took place in Ballingrane. With her cousin Philip Embury (qv), Heck has been credited with being among the first properly documented founders of methodism in America and architects of one of the first methodist churches in North America. Unfortunately there are few surviving primary sources, and most of what we know of her comes from methodist tradition.
Known to later generations of methodists as the ‘Mother of methodism’, she converted in 1752. In June 1760 she and her husband, Paul Heck, were among twenty-five or more young Palatines to leave Limerick on board the Pery, arriving in New York on 10 August. The Hecks at first attended Trinity Lutheran Church in New York, where the first three of their children were baptised. Barbara is credited with inspiring Philip Embury's return to preaching after she came on some of the Palatine men gambling at cards. Embury began preaching at first in his own home to his family and friends (1766), then, as his congregation grew, he preached in the city barracks and in a sail-rigging loft on Horse and Cart St. In March 1768 Embury and other English and Irish methodists purchased a lot in John St., where they built a chapel, the design of which is attributed to Barbara Heck (who, tradition says, also whitewashed the interior). This was the first chapel in the world to be named after John Wesley, and it was here on 30 October 1768 that Embury preached his first formal sermon. After 1769 Wesley sent preachers who regularised the situation, and on 2 November 1770 John St. chapel was transferred to Wesley's methodist connection. In the spring of 1770 Heck, Embury, and other members of the Palatine group moved to Camden Valley, Charlotte Co., New York, where they leased land from lawyer James Duane. Heck appears to have assisted Embury in his ministry up until his death (1773) and is known to have set up at least one methodist class (in the town of Hampton).
When the revolution reached their homes many of the Palatine men, including Paul Heck, joined the loyalist forces, where they formed part of the King's Royal Regiment of New York under Capt. Robert Leake. The Palatine farms in the Camden valley were, in consequence, confiscated in 1778 and the women and children fled to Canada. By way of compensation the Palatine loyalists were eventually granted land by the British government in township no. 7, 3rd concession (Augusta), Upper Canada (1785). The Hecks and other Palatines who settled in the Bay of Quinte area helped found the Augusta Methodist Society, which formed the nucleus of one of the first circuits of what later became the Canada conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Barbara Heck died 17 August 1804, at her son's home in the hamlet of Maynard, Augusta township, in present-day Ontario, Canada. She is buried in the Blue Church cemetery, Prescott, Ontario.
She married (1760) Paul Heck (1730–95), son of John Heck, tenant farmer, in Ballingrane, Co. Limerick. They had seven children, three of whom survived to adulthood. Their son Samuel (1771–1844) was baptised in Arlington (in present-day Vermont) in a group baptism with seven other Palatine children on 4 February 1774 by the Rev. Gideon Bostwick of Great Barrington, Mass.; he became a local preacher in Augusta in 1803, and was ordained deacon 1817 and elder 1828. Their other children were Jacobina Elizabeth (b. 1761, died young), Catherine Barbara (died at birth, 1763), Elizabeth Maria (b. 1765); John (1767–1805); Jacob (1769–1847); and Nancy (1772–c.1781).
Barbara Heck's portrait can be found at the United Library, Garret-Evangelical and Seabury-Western Theological Seminaries, Evanston, Ill., USA. Heck and Embury family papers are in the Archives and History Centre of the United Methodist Church, Drew University, Madison, NJ, USA. The records of John St. church are in the manuscript and archives section, New York Public Library.