In the Upper Canada of the 1820s, in the Village of Sharon, a small community known as the Children of Peace crafted, with simple tools but consummate skill and artistry, a dramatic architectural testament to its vision of a society founded on the values of peace, equality and social justice.
This plain folk of former Quakers led the country’s first farmers’ co-operative, built its first shelter for the homeless, and played a key role in the development of democracy by ensuring the elections of William Lyon Mackenzie, and both fathers of responsible government – Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine – in the formative years before Canadian confederation.
The center piece of their activity was The Temple. Completed in 1832 and restored in 2011, it is now part of the Sharon National Historic Site, which encompasses nine historic buildings in a park like setting.
The architectural elements of the Temple combine to express a singular vision of the most striking beauty. Its three tiers, four-fold symmetry, lanterns and pinnacles were inspired by the old testament from the Bible. Jacob’s Ladder, a gently curved staircase, leads to the musicians’ gallery above. The four central pillars even bear names: Faith, Hope, Love and Charity.
Known for their pageantry, the Children of Peace integrated a unique social vision with distinctive artistic and architectural works and an unparalleled musical tradition: they formed the first civilian band in Canada and commissioned the first organ built in Ontario.
Other buildings on the site include David Willson’s Study of 1829 (leader of the local settlers) which is a smaller architectural gem. The Ebenezer Doan house of 1819, constructed by the Temple’s master-builder and relocated from the former Doan family farm nearby, has been restored in an early garden setting. You will see the “cook house” were communal meals were created and served, the “drive shed’ complete with period carriages and do not miss another of David Willson’s architectural curiosities – the round outhouse.
The Children of Peace, the builders of the Sharon Temple, embodied contradiction after contradiction. They were a “plain folk”, former Quakers with no musical tradition, who went on to create the first civilian band in Canada and build the first organ in Ontario. They built an ornate temple to raise money for the poor, and built the province’s first shelter for the homeless and by 1851, Sharon was the most prosperous village in the province. They took a lead role in the organization of the province’s first co-operative, the Farmers’ Storehouse, and opened the province’s first credit union. They played a critical role in the development of democracy in Canada through their support of William Lyon Mackenzie and by ensuring the elections of both “fathers of responsible government,” Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine, in their riding in 1841, despite threats of political violence. But today, they are primarily remembered for the Temple, an architectural symbol of their vision of a society based on the values of peace, equality and social justice.
The Temple was constructed between 1825 and 1831. It was constructed in imitation of Solomon’s Temple and used once a month to collect alms for the poor; two other meetinghouses in the village of “Hope” (now Sharon) were used for regular Sunday worship. The Children of Peace saw themselves as the new Israelites lost in the wilderness of Upper Canada. The village of “Hope” (now Sharon) was their new Jerusalem, the focal point of God’s kingdom on earth.
The leader this group was David Willson, who was born in New York State in 1778 and migrated to Canada in 1801. He joined the Quakers, of which his wife was a member, but his ministry was rejected when he began to preach at the beginning of the War of 1812. He was joined by a majority of the Quakers living on Yonge Street, including the Master Builder of the Temple and Meeting Houses, Ebenezer Doan; Doan’s farmhouse and out buildings now stand on the museum grounds. Samuel Hughes, another member, played a large role in the development of the Farmers’ Storehouse, and reform politics.
The consolidation of the Children of Peace in a single village, Hope, was accompanied by their adoption of a cooperative economy. Through cooperative marketing, the establishment of a credit union, and a land-sharing system, the Children of Peace all became prosperous farmers in an era when new farmers frequently failed. The Children of Peace were never communal like many of the other new religious movements then sprouting up in the United States (like the Shakers, the early Mormons or the Oneida Perfectionists). The Children of Peace viewed commercial exchange as a necessarily moral act; in selling their wheat they were not concerned to simply obtain the “highest market price.” Since they did not have to calculate for profit, the logic of their commercial exchanges was based on moral principles, not economic ones. David Willson urged the members of his sect not to bargain at all, but seek a fixed price that represented their own needs, not the highest amount the market would bear.
Although captivated by visions of equality, the Children of Peace lived in an autocratic colony. They inspired other settlers to fight for democracy within a loose-knit “Reform Movement” of disenchanted farmers and tradesmen. David Willson had long been an active political figure. He had, for example, suggested the “General Convention of [Reform] Delegates” held in February of 1834 to nominate candidates for the four ridings of the County of York. This was the foundation on which the Canadian Alliance Society, the first true political party in the province, was erected; these candidates were required to pledge in advance to fight for a democratic reform platform in the House. David Willson was the main speaker before the convention and “he addressed the meeting with great force and effect”.
William Lyon Mackenzie was the elected representative for their riding, and was eventually to attempt to overthrow the government in the Rebellion of 1837. Some of the Children of Peace, including Willson’s sons and son-in-law, participated. The events and consequences of the rebellion are well known: the skirmish at Montgomery’s Tavern, the hanging of Samuel Lount, Lord Durham’s Report, political reform and Responsible Government (Cabinet rule). Less well known is the tedium of the jail cell in harsh winter conditions endured by many of the rebels. To while away the long hours, many prisoners carved small, ornate boxes as presents for their families. The boxes memorialize friends lost in battle, and express a defiant call for liberty and democracy. They were the sole consolation for those who had been widowed, or whose husbands remained in jail; for example, David Willson’s daughter, a pregnant Mary Willson Doan, wrote to her husband in jail wishing “you would be permitted to come to your little home”, acknowledging the reality, and desiring a “box” for her yet unborn child. That child, David Willson Doan, was born twelve days after the letter was written. Charles Doan remained in jail for a further five months.
During the 1840s, Willson continued his association with the Reform Party; he was, for example, the campaign manager in the area for both Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine, the “Fathers of Responsible Government” and first elected premiers of the province. The band of the Children of Peace was a familiar sight at Baldwin’s campaign rallies.
After Willson’s death in 1866 the sect slowly diminished. The last service was held in the Temple in 1889. The derelict Temple was purchased by the York Pioneer and Historical Society in 1917, and restored, making it one of the earliest examples of historic preservation in Canada. The temple is now a National Historic Site and Museum as well as a National Peace Site. The site has a collection of restored buildings and displays pioneer artefacts and historic items related to the sect.