“You are about to enter a building calculated to inspire the beholder with astonishment.”
William Lyon Mackenzie. 1830.
Like a long marriage, there have been ups and ups and down in Nancy and Louis’ National Historic Site adventures. Almost two years after stepping foot in our first of almost 200 Sites, the wonderful John McCrae House in Guelph, a handful stand out as spectacular, as verified treasures.
Near the top of our favourites is the Sharon Temple, in the Ontario village of Sharon, north of Newmarket.
So stay for a while, and find out what makes the Sharon Temple spectacular. I’ll lay bets that you’ll want to add it a visit your summer “to do in Ontario ” list.
Time travel back with me to Upper Canada of the early 1820’s. It’s a wild and wooly land with roads scarcely more than dirt tracks. Settlers, most emigrating from the British Isles or America do battle with cruel and harsh elements to survive and put food on the family’s table. (If they even owned such a convenience!)
A band of disaffected Quakers, “plain folk,” who call themselves “The Children of Peace” have arrived in an unsettled area north of the bustling town of York (now Toronto.) Led by American-born David Willson, a failed preacher, the Children view themselves as ‘the new Israelites lost in the wilderness of Upper Canada.” Their settlement, which they call “Hope” will be the group’s “new Jerusalem, the focal point of God’s kingdom on earth.”
After shelter and barns are built, the Children turn their sights on building a great temple where they’ll worship. Ebeneezer Doan will be the architect and master builder, with men of the community providing the labour. Its design and construction will provide a curious number of contradictions between the builders and the building.
Behind their pious and plain exterior, The Children of Peace were an ambitious lot—ambitious for material wealth; ambitious for recognition. Herein lies Contradiction #1.
So Doan’s great House of Worship would be no humble log structure, with a wooden crate for its pulpit; split timber for pews. A soaring structure of architectural complexity and exquisite workmanship would rise above the rural landscape. Its magnificence would draw people from miles around to look and wonder.
Construction of the Hope (later Sharon) Temple began in 1825 and was completed in 1832. It’s no co-incidence that its seven year “gestation” paralleled that of the building of the Old Testament’s Solomon’s Temple. Numbers and The Bible will figure into much of the Temple’s design. Tag along to see what I mean. We’ll begin outside.
As Solomon’s great achievement was his “four-square” Temple, so too would be the legacy of The Children of Peace. Covered in white board with green trim, the Temple would rise 3 stories, to represent the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Symmetry is all, with the base measuring exactly 60 by 60 feet; the second floor 20 by 20 feet, and the third 12 by 12.
Chained to tip-top of the pinnacle is a curious golden ball, or orb. Deep in symbolism, the orb represents the world upheld by the Trinity. At each corner of each level, elaborate towering lanterns are placed.
Tall multi-paned windows, in units of three– their glass imported from England — would bring welcome sun equally to every corner of the Temple.Four identical doors–one on each side- -allowed those who entered The Great Temple to do so “on equal footing.”
Look Up–Look Way Up
Let’s go inside by the east door. We’ll run directly into “Jacob’s Ladder” a dizzyingly-steep staircase that leads to the musicians’ gallery above. Here we’ll find the Temple’s Contradiction #2.
While music played little role in Quaker faith, this House of Worship would resound with song. The congregation and choir seated on the ground would provide the voices, but the instrumental music would come from above—the third floor loft.
No service elevators here! Before service, Temple musicians would ascend to the ethers with their respective instruments. After service they would struggle down from the “heavens.” I wonder if the Children of God’s orchestra included a tuba or double bass player!
The Church of Peace gains the distinction of forming the first orchestra in Ontario.
Let’s climb up there ourselves, but hang on for dear life. The spectacular view is worth the effort, as you can see for miles. But the descent to to the first floor is no less anxiety-causing. We’re glad glad to be on terra firma.
Arks and Pillars of Virtue
The Temple’s main floor is dominated by the handsome wooden altar, crafted to mimic the Ark of the Covenant. Glass allows a peek inside. Here are written the 10 Commandments. Around of the altar are placed four sturdy wooden columns. Each is named for one of the four Virtues: Faith, Hope Love and Charity. Twelve interior lanterns are mounted on 12 wooden pillars throughout the worship area.
You’ll notice there are no pews. The congregation, up to 300 souls sat on wooden chairs during service. Different levels of flooring allowed the short-of- stature to see more clearly as their attention was focused in the altar.
As befitting a Temple where music plays a key role, the Temple boasted three organs, all on the ground floor. The earliest, built by Richard Coates in 1820 was the first in organ built in Ontario.
Given the magnificence of the Temple, it seems curious that the Children of Peace used their place of worship so infrequently. Only 15 times a year were services held—on the last Saturday of each month, as well as other special days. For service, candles were placed in all the windows and the lanterns.
Regular Sunday services were held in a smaller Children of God meeting house.
More than Architecture
The Children of Peace are footnoted in Ontario history for more than their marvellous Temple. Led by the progressive and ambitious Willson, they initiated the Farmer’s Storehouse, the provinces’s first co-operative. They also founded and opened Ontario’s first Credit Union. Under Willson’s astute business acumen, the Children of God became wealthy. By 1851, Hope was considered the most affluent community in Ontario.
Charity was first and foremost in the minds of The Children of Peace. Alms for the poor were collected during church services and distributed to the less-fortunate of the community.
Political movers and shakers too, David Willson and his followers were outspoken supporters of William Lyon McKenzie, one of the fathers of “responsible” government and democracy in Ontario. Herein lies contradiction #3. Espousing democratic values, Willson ruled his empire as an iron-fisted autocrat.
After David Willson
Small wonder that on Willson’s death in 1866, the Children of Peace lost momentum and eventually disbanded. The last service was held in the Temple in 1899.
Derelict and abandoned until 1917, the Sharon Temple was purchased by the York Pioneer and Historical Society. Some restoration took place at that time. In 1990, the Sharon Temple was designated a National Historic Site and is administered today as a Museum by the Sharon Temple Museum Society,
At 200th anniversary celebrations at the Temple in 2012, speaker John Ralston Saul, husband of former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson called the Children of Peace’s achievement “the birthplace of democracy in Canada.”