Alternative names of location: Village of Hope; Davidtown; officially named Sharon in 1841
Alternative names of the group: Children of Peace; Davidites
Location: About 60 km (35 mi) north of Toronto, 5 km north of Newmarket. 44.106 N, -79.434W.
In 1812, David Willson, along with five or six others, established a unique Christian sect. Members of the initial group had all broken away from the Society of Friends (Quakers) established in York County north of Toronto. While they took with them many Quaker principles and practices such as plain dress and family land-holding, they diverged in others, notably in their use of music, colour and decoration in the community they built. The population was about 300 to 350 at its height. Some of the Children of Peace participated in the 1837 Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861); and some played a role in the struggles of Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (1807-1864) to gain “responsible government” and unify Upper and Lower Canada. One enduring representation of the sect is the Sharon Temple, designed by Willson and built by co-religionists Ebenezer and John Doan. The sect’s spiritual and philosophical beliefs are profusely symbolized throughout, thanks to the craft of its builders.
David Willson (1778-1866) was born near Poughkeepsie, New York into a Presbyterian family. His father died around 1793 and as a consequence his formal education was cut short. In 1798 he followed his older step-brother, Hugh, to New York City. He married Phebe Titmus (?-1866), a daughter of Quakers. She was disowned by the Quakers for marrying outside the sect. David and Hugh engaged in trade and shipment of goods between New York and the West Indies. In 1801, David, Phebe, and their two very young sons made their way to Toronto. The final leg of their immigration journey was to walk up Yonge Street to reach the land grant they had been allotted. It was lot 10 in concession 2, East Gwillimbury. By 1805, Willson had met all the demands associated with receiving free and clear ownership of the land.
David Willson became active in the Yonge Street Monthly Meeting of the Quakers and was a full member by 1805. Phebe was readmitted. For the next seven years he participated on several committees. The task of one of these was to consider if Quakers, being pacifists, could in all conscience accept land distributed by the government in either of two circumstances. One was land given by the state as recompense either for participation in the militia or for service of some type in lieu of military participation. The other circumstance involved land that the government had set aside as “clergy lands”: one-seventh of surveyed land in Upper Canada was designated by the Constitutional Act (1791) for use by Protestant clergy without specifying which Protestant denomination(s). However, government actions led to the widely-held assumption that the Anglican Church of England was the intended beneficiary. The question the committee asked itself was: Could Quakers rent these lands yet retain their pacifist principles? The struggle to decide such questions is significant because later, in the context of the Rebellion of 1837 and afterwards, David Willson would quite specifically position his sect in opposition to the state’s persistent linkage of political power to only one religion, that of the Church of England. He reasoned that this use of political power disadvantaged all those with different religious convictions.
Analysts of Quaker records and David Willson’s extensive writings show that his intense scrutiny of points of principle resulted in his religious beliefs gradually becoming discordant with Quaker doctrine to the point that he began to speak aloud about the trouble he had aligning the two. In 1812 he was disowned by the Quakers on procedural grounds because he expressed his disagreement in ways the organizations’s elders could not support. However, Willson wrote that he left not on a procedural but a doctrinal matter. Quite likely it was a combination of both. A group of five or six families who agreed with David Willson left the Quakers about the same time. The small group made several appeals for reconsideration in 1814 and 1815, all the way to the Friends’ headquarters in Philadelphia, to no avail. As it turned out, a decade or so later the issue at the core of that dispute would split North American Quakers into two types — “Orthodox” and “Hicksite.” The former sought to increase order and conformity as determined by elders and other appointed leaders within the sect whereas the latter wanted the “religion of experience” to be more central. Briefly, the latter gives precedence to the belief that all individuals have direct access within themselves to the spirit of God, expressed as the Inner Light, and therefore all should speak freely to co-religionists about how they understand God’s messages received in this way.
Use of land
Willson’s group set up the Children of Peace with him as the leader and proceeded to build a community. They called it the Village of Hope. Already by 1814 there were 30 members. Group members each settled on their own land. Household members were primarily engaged in farming and artisan trades.
The configuration of the Village of Hope was long and narrow, spread along Yonge Street. It more closely resembled villages in Delaware, which was where many of the Children of Peace had come from, than classic New England villages that tended to surround a common open space. Key community buildings for education, prayer, and music, for example, were built on Willson’s or other members’ land; the Children of Peace as an organization did not itself own land. Community life centred around those buildings, making it both a physical community and a “community of spirit.”
The first community structure was a school for girls which opened in 1818. The same year a burial ground was established south of the village. The group held religious meetings in homes until 1819 when the first meeting house was built. It was 40-foot square with 16-foot walls and a small square turret at the top. It became a partial model for the later Temple with its 60-foot square base and three tiers, to a height of 75 feet.
When the Children of Peace outgrew their first meeting house, they built a second, much larger one between 1834 and 1842. This time it was rectangular with a generous overhanging roof that sheltered a veranda on all sides. The open porch, framed by arches and slender columns, provided a transition space between the intimate place of worship inside and daily activities outside.
To some extent, David Willson’s study built in 1829 was the model for the second meeting house. The first meeting house was converted to a Music Hall.
The Temple, designed by David Willson and built by Ebenezer and John Doan, was constructed between 1825 and 1832, when it was dedicated. The Temple was used for regular alms-collection gatherings and for special celebrations. It was not a church and was not intended as such.
Discussions over the years have considered how this three-tiered design came about. Willson seems to have drawn on several sources, including his periodic “visions,” the egalitarian principles propounded by the Children of Peace, and probably the descriptions of Solomon’s Temple and the New Jerusalem in the Bible, illustrations of which had been made by artists and architects over the ages.
Symbolism is everywhere, inside and out. The Temple’s four equal sides signify the value the sect places on square-dealing; a door on each side suggests the equality of all who enter from whichever direction; and the exact same number and size of windows on each façade are intended to allow the light to fall equally on all within. At the centre, in clear view of all, is a carved altar, often referred to as the Ark.
The second tier is reached by a narrow bowed staircase that does not obstruct the view of people seated around the main floor room. It led to an upper space designed for musicians and singers who were largely obscured from view.
This created a sense of the music descending magically from on high. At the very top is a 12-foot square turret with an architectural lantern at each corner of its roof. A golden ball engraved with the word “peace” is strung up between the lanterns. Ornamentation and colour inside and out, and the provision for music, all point away from conventional Quaker architecture.
The Children of Peace established several initiatives to help preserve a measure of equality among themselves but also to help others in the immediate area. For example, they distributed the alms collected in the Temple; established the first homeless shelter in Ontario; created a credit union that loaned small amounts of money; developed a system for young families to borrow land until they became financially stable on their own farms. Such socio-economic well-being measures contributed to the survival of the Children of Peace as a group. Additionally, in the 1850s at the height of the group’s population, it had the most prosperous farms in the region.
Beyond those initiatives, they were also active at a broader scale. The Children of Peace helped form the Farmers’ Storehouse Company in 1824. They were shareholders and directors of this facility which gave York Region farmers some control over the selling price of their main crop, wheat. They could store their produce on the Toronto waterfront over the winter if it was more advantageous than selling the crop in the fall to wheat merchants. Members could thereby avoid falling into debt to those merchants. One of the most successful farming members of the Children of Peace was the first president of the Storehouse.
The Children of Peace lived in the Fourth Riding of York, Upper Canada, which was William Lyon Mackenzie’s seat. They contributed in several ways to his efforts to challenge the “family compact” and obtain responsible government for Upper and Lower Canada. They were already known for their Yonge Street marches — banners flying, band playing — to accompany David Willson to invited sermons and speeches in Newmarket, Toronto, or elsewhere. Willson gave rousing speeches and Mackenzie invited this “itinerating sect,” as he called the group, to participate in political events. In Mackenzie’s 1837 Rebellion, two members of the Children of Peace were shot dead, around 20 were imprisoned for up to seven months, one was exiled to Tasmania, a couple fled to the United States. Mackenzie also fled. His seat in the legislature was won by Robert Baldwin, strongly supported by members of the Children of Peace. They also rallied behind Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine when Baldwin finessed a way to turn his York seat over to LaFontaine in 1841 while he, Baldwin, held another seat in Hastings County. Consequently, the Children of Peace can be said to have played central roles in Mackenzie’s struggles against the family compact as well as in the election of two of the men who were central to pushing forward Lord Durham’s responsible government reforms and the union of Canada East and Canada West.
The written record relating to the Children of Peace and the Sharon Temple is extensive although little is known of David Willson’s personal life. Emily McArthur (1898) and James Hughes (1918) knew him personally within the sect and provide some first-hand information. See also Mackenzie (1833) who knew him from a perspective outside the sect. See W. John McIntyre (1974), Albert Schrauwers (1995), and Arthur Garratt Dorland (1968) for interpretations of Willson’s writings, the separation from the Quakers, and his visions for a new, distinctive community of co-religionists. McIntyre (1994) illustrates in depth how the group’s material culture was intertwined with its religious and social justice practices. Architect Mark Fram (2007) describes the distinctive buildings the community created, and situates the design of the Temple in the context of architectural history. Albert Schrauwers (1993) examines how the group functioned from the point of view of an anthropologist. His 2009 book focuses on how the Children of Peace projected their values into the larger society through involvement in many political and economic initiatives including the 1837 Rebellion and later in the Upper Canada assembly elections of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in York County. Sharon Temple is a National Historic Site which can be searched on-line for details about its background and significance.
by Beth Moore Milroy
11.07.17; revised 22.08.17; 11.10.17
- Dorland, Arthur Garratt. 1968. The Quakers in Canada: A history. Revised edition. Toronto: Ryerson Press.
- Fram, Mark. 2007. Rebuilding hope: The Sharon Temple after 175 years. 1st edition. Toronto: Coach House Books. Co-published by: Sharon Temple Museum Society.
- Fram, Mark and Albert Schrauwers. 2005. 4Square: An introduction to the Sharon Temple National Historic Site, to the Children of Peace who made it, and to their place in the history of Canada before Canada. 1st edition. Toronto: Coach House Books.
- Hughes, James L. 1918. Sketches of the Sharon Temple and of its founder, David Willson. (publication information to be added)
- Mackenzie, William Lyon. 1833. “The Children of Peace,” in Sketches of Canada and the United States. London: E. Wilson, p 118-123. On-line source: http://eco.canadiana.ca/search/?q4.0=ti%3Athe&q5.0=ti%3AUnited&collection=ecl&df=1833&dt=1837&q2.0=ti%3ACanada&q3.0=ti%3Aand&q6.0=ti%3AStates&q1.0=ti%3Aof&q0.0=ti%3ASketches. Accessed: 14.06.17.
- McArthur, Emily. 1898. History of the Children of Peace. Reprinted 1967 by Baxter Publishing for York Pioneer and Historical Society.
- McIntyre, William John. 1974. The early writings of David Willson. Toronto: York Pioneer and Historical Society.
- ——-. 1994. Children of Peace. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Schrauwers, Albert. 1993. Awaiting the millennium: The Children of Peace and the Village of Hope, 1812-1889. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- ——-. 1995. “The politics of schism: The separation of the Children of Peace, 1812,” in Albert Schrauwers, ed., Faith, friends and fragmentation: Essays on nineteenth century Quakerism in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Friends Historical Association (Monograph Series Number One), 69-82.
- ——-. 2009. ‘Union is strength’: W.L. Mackenzie, the Children of Peace and the emergence of joint stock democracy in Upper Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Sharon Temple National Historic Site of Canada. http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=10712. Accessed 23.06.17.