100 Years Ago – Sharon Temple of Peace (Condensed, with kind permission, from Robertson’s “Landmarks of Toronto”) Published – York Pioneer Historical Society Annual Report – 1918
On the fair plain of Sharon, quietest of Ontario hamlets, there still stands the strange Temple of Peace, in solemn loneliness, “Ichabod” written over every pane and portal.
It was David Willson, pioneer preacher, educator, architect, who here in this wilderness, working for righteousness, constructed for the worship of his Maker buildings which bid fair to last well into their second century.
In 1802 he came to this section in East Gwillimbury, some thirty-five miles north-east of York, and obtained a grant of land under the hand and seal of King George.
After settling in Sharon, David Willson and his wife joined the Quakers, but the ways of worship did not suit the newcomer. He loved music and they did not. Other troubles came, and in 1812 Mr. Willson seceded. Half a dozen joined him, and the “Davidites” or Children of Peace was organized.
The little log building in which he preached to them did not satisfy the energetic man. He encouraged and enthused the people in the wish for a better place of worship. Like the Israelites they “gave willingly, “time, labor and money, and in 1819, the Music Hall, the first church of the sect, came into being. This was eventually torn down. In 1825, the Temple was begun.
When you wander, a stranger, into the sleepy beauty of Sharon, and inquire concerning the temple, you are always told to –
“Ask Mrs. MacArthur. She knows most about it.” For not only does this lady remember from the standpoint of an eye-witness, but she has also collected statistics and compiled a pamphlet concerning the Children of Peace and their various biuldings.
“The temple was never used on Sunday, “said Mrs. MacArthur, “and was really opened only fifteen times during the year.”
The illumination took place the evening of the first Friday in September: a feast was held following this, and also after the first Friday in June. The first mentioned feat was that of the “first fruits.” The second was first instituted in honor of Mr. Willson’s birthday, and afterwards as the “Passover”.
The building was also opened at Christmas, and on the last Saturday of each month, when the members gathered to remember with money and prayer, the different objects of charity.
It stands near the centre of the village, this curious temple, with its sixty feet of land surface, and its seventy-five feet of height.
Before inspecting the interior, the visitor may have to climb through a window as occasionally one of the many other visitors loses a key but he eventually gets in and looks with curious eyes at the big square room with pillars and arches which in a crude way are reminiscent of early Italian architecture. The place is bare save for the pillars, two small tables and a peculiar structure in the exact centre. There is a curved stairway near the north door.
The room is cut into four sections by aisles leading to the north, south, east and west doors, placed exactly in the centre of each side. People from all points of the compass were expected to come here to worship. There are many windows – twenty-four to be exact – on this floor, above the high painted wainscoting, but nothing resembling a pulpit is to be seen – not even a desk except for a long low one at one side which was used by the band.
Some twenty feet away are the pillars each with the name of an apostle attached in letters of gold on band of black.
The letters are half effaced now, yet still “Philip” and “Andrew” and “John” with some of the other names are to be deciphered.
Just within this square of pillars are four more dedicated: “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love” and “Charity,” standing each at a corner of the afore-mentioned structure, altar or rather perhaps ark, as David Willson no doubt intended it to be.
This is a unique structure, not unlike a small pagoda, with high, peculiarly curved roof, tiny windows, and open doors through which one may see a large raised cushion of red, empty now save for a crimson scarf laid across it.
Three hundred and sixty-five days did it take the Davidites to make this wonderful ark, choosing the beautiful inlaid walnut of which it is made with the utmost care, and putting it together with exquisite workmanship by hand, so that the Solomon’s Temple, “there was neither hammer nor axe nor tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building.”
On square stands at each of the corners there rested at one time little lamps of pure gold, and inside on the cushion there was a Bible, but both lamps and Bible were long ago taken from the place by thieving vandals.
The two small tables spoken of above were used as receptacles for the collection, each person laying his or her offering upon them as they were carried by.
A system of curves is carried out everywhere in the main building. The arches above the ark represent the rainbow – for every part of the architecture of the strange building is symbolic. The three storeys are emblematic of the Trinity, and the square base means “square dealing with all the world.”
The doors on east, west, south and north mean that people should come in from every point of the compass on equal footing; the equal number of windows on each side of every door that the light of the gospel should go to all people; and when, on those September nights so long ago, the Children of Peace watched with heart-filled eyes the light of the candles leap up and shine out over wooded hill and plain, they looked forward earnestly, devoutly to the time when the light of the Prince of Peace should illumine every dark corner of the broad earth.
If you ascend the neatly painted ladder-like stairway to the second storey you will find more windows and a railed open space in the centre. There are benches here where the band used to sit. On the outside is another ladder leading to the third storey which was probably in days gone by scaled by many an adventurous youth who wished to examine more closely the big gold ball suspended in the centre of the tower.
The word “Peace” is inscribed upon the shining globe.
The whole building is in a good state of preservation, as is evidenced by the sound flooring which is one and three quarter inches thick, and by the condition of all the woodwork.
All the fastenings of the doors and windows are of wrought iron welded by hand, and are artistic. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the preservation of the shingles, which after nearly a century are still practically free from decay.
The wintry nights of 1818 and ’19 were notable ones in Sharon, for then the Davidites’ choir was in its fullest tide of musical study. Many evenings during the winter, sleighloads of young people drove to the meeting house, where the choir met in the room above, and joined in the singing.
These same visitors, young and old, crowded to the feasts following the illumination. In speaking of these events, Mr. Absalom Willson said:
“For those days and times, the feasts were well-attended. I have known three hundred and sixty-five to sit down at one time for dinner, and then the tables would often be filled the second time.”
The tables were spread in the meeting house and served by white-robed girls, who hurried in with platters of roast lamb and veal, potatoes, bread and butter, cheese and plum cake, pie and tea, the hungry diners partaking while the band played outside on the green.
The September and Christmas feasts were a little different from that of June as given above. At these feasts the housewives provided roast fowl, bread and butter, “pound” cake, cheese and cranberry sauce.
“The Davidites were a quiet and industrious people,” said Mrs. MacArthur, “and very devout. They all worked willingly when the Temple was built. “But,” she added, after a moment’s pause, “the buildings are still here – at least the later ones – and the people are gone. There are, I think, only five of the bandsmen left, and they are far away.”
The little body never asked for financial assistance outside of their own congregations. During the earlier years, it was the custom for a number to go to Toronto and Markham township to hold Sunday services. David Willson was the only minister they ever knew, and he gave his services free.
Any surplus above that needed to keep the church in repair was always given to the poor. Mr. Willson once wrote: “Our wants are few and simple.” And the lives of the people proved the truth of this assertion.
The little congregation – numbering nearly a hundred – grew and throve, living true upright lives in the midst of the community, giving help to poorer ones about.
The life of David Willson, the leader who had so roused and energized the people of the place, that here in the wilderness schools were organized, music given a prominent place, and remarkable structures build, ended January 16, 1866, at the age of 87 years, 7 months, and 12 days.
He was laid to rest beside his wife in the cemetery a mile south of Sharon.
The society began to dwindle then, though for a time the eldest son of the preacher, John David Willson, read the services, making use of the sermons and hymns written by his father, and in a few years people moved away, and the society became extinct.
The last service held in the meeting house by the Children of Peace was in the month of August, 1886. For a time the “Christians” took over the church and meeting-house under certain terms of agreement, but they did not live up to these terms, and the building fell again into absolute disuse.