Reader Neil McBride raised an interesting point after having read my piece about the Methodist preacher Joseph Pilmoor, who was raised in the tiny village of Fadmoor on the North York Moors yet went on to become a hugely influential preacher in the US colonies after being sent there by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.

Joseph was the son of pioneering engineer Joseph Foord, a Quaker, who brought fresh water to villages in the Tabular Hills in the 18th Century. He was banished by the Quakers after having fathered his son out of wedlock.

Neil says: “I wonder if Pilmoor spoke of illegitimacy in his sermons. If so, it would be interesting to know how he handled it.”

Neil’s comment set me off on my own pilgrimage across the internet to see if I could find any record of his speeches, or those of his mentor Wesley, that mentioned the Methodist attitude to children of unwed mothers.

The early Methodists were so-called because they approached their faith in a very methodical way. They pledged to obey three main rules, which in simple terms were ‘Do no harm’, ‘Do good’, and ‘Love God’. By sticking to this ‘method’, their lives, so Wesley preached, would be improved beyond measure and they would find salvation. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that, with various breakaway factions along the way disputing what true Methodism was, and there were dozens more lists of instructions as to how to fulfil those three apparently simple main rules. But fundamentally, unlike many of their contemporary faiths, Wesleyan Methodists believed that anyone, from whatever background or class, could be ‘saved’.

I could not lay my hands on any direct references by Wesley or Pilmoor to children being born out of wedlock. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it just means I don’t have the time to keep searching through all of their thousands of sermons to find them. However, it does appear that they considered unmarried women who gave birth ‘fallen’ and in need of ‘saving’. And by saved, of course, they meant converted. They were not turned away, as long as they embraced the Methodist way of life. Obviously though, the attitude was that it was all the woman’s fault and no doubt many prayers were said to help her tighten up her loose morals. I doubt that they ever felt the need to pray for the man involved in the physical transaction that resulted in a baby.

I can imagine why this strategy was so successful in gaining followers, especially among the masses of displaced and dispossessed residents of the colonies. If you were a slave trapped in an abysmal life or a pregnant woman with no husband and no income, you would be desperate and miserable. Then someone comes along and tells you that by following three ‘simple’ steps, your life will change for the better forever. Why wouldn’t you give it a go? It’s an approach that has stood the test of time, with various advertisers today still offering a list of supposedly ‘simple’ steps to solve all your worldly woes.

So perhaps Joseph Pilmoor used his own experience as an example to his flock. Look what happens, he’d have said, when you are saved? I went from a rejected bastard child to a globe-trotting, celebrity preacher blessed by God! He’s the 18th Century Methodist version of a social media influencer.

On the subject of the word ‘bastard’, regular reader Clare Proctor said: “When I was young the word 'bastard' was still being used to refer to children born out of wedlock. In fact, my father, jokingly, used to refer to my brother's children (he was not married to their mother) as the three little 'b's!… Now my children have no concept of the relevance of whether their friends' parents are married or not, they probably don't even know. They certainly would not refer to them as bastards. It just gets used as a swearword. But if you don't know its original meaning, then how is it offensive?”

How attitudes change. Calling someone a ‘bastard’ when I was young suggested that the mother of said ‘bastard’ was morally lacking in some way. Thankfully, we have made some progress since then, and acknowledge that two people are responsible for a pregnancy and, generally, one of them is a man.

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