Children of Peace

The Children of Peace. A religious sect active in the area of Sharon (known as Hope until the 1860s but from the 1840s mainly as Sharon), south of Lake Simcoe, Ont, from the second to the ninth decade of the 19th century.

Children of Peace

The Children of Peace. A religious sect active in the area of Sharon (known as Hope until the 1860s but from the 1840s mainly as Sharon), south of Lake Simcoe, Ont, from the second to the ninth decade of the 19th century. Maintaining a membership of a few hundred, the community rose and declined with its leader, David Willson (b Dutchess County, NY, 7 Jun 1778, d Sharon 19 Jan 1866), a self-made theologian and charismatic leader; indeed the members of the sect were known also as the Davidites. Of Irish descent and Presbyterian background, Willson had little formal education. He was a joiner and sailor before settling on Upper Canada crown land in 1801. A few years later he became a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), but his independent interpretation of the Bible and his passion for music led to his secession, along with a few friends. In reaction to the austerity of the Quaker meetings, the Children of Peace expressed their Christianity in diverse and imaginative ways: through the symbolism of their architecture, their emphasis on equality, and their cultivation of both vocal and instrumental music.

Four communal buildings were erected in Hope, the first a Meeting House (1819-93) which later became a Music Hall for band practice, entertainments, and Sunday school. Two buildings have survived (they both were purchased in 1918 by the York Pioneer and Historical Society and converted in that same year to a museum): they are Willson's study (1829), and the Temple (built 1825-31), a structure square-shaped to express square dealing, in three tapered storeys to symbolize the Trinity, and supported by 12 pillars, one for each apostle. The York (Toronto) painter-musician Richard Coates supplied paintings for the Temple and built three organs: a barrel organ (ca 1820) with 133 pipes and two barrels with 10 sacred tunes each, another barrel organ (18??) with three barrels of sacred and secular tunes, and a keyboard instrument (1848) for the second Meeting House (1842-1913).

The first organ (if not the first built in Canada then almost certainly the oldest preserved) has charmed the ears of visitors to the Temple for many years but in the 1970s came to be demonstrated by means of a replica of the original barrel, which had become too fragile to be operated. Geoffrey Payzant was engaged in the mid-1970s as a consultant on the preservation of the organs. (Payzant restored the playing mechanism, and the organ builder Stewart Duncan restored the pipework and wind chest). In a sense the barrels are the oldest sound recordings in Canada - they provide exactly the same sounds as they did to Canadians in the early 19th-century. By plotting the graph of the pins which activate the passage of air through the pipes Don F. Wright of Dundas, Ont, transcribed the tunes in 1967; Keith MacMillan made a tape-recording in 1963 that is used in the Temple, and with John Beckwith and Helmut Kallmann identified all but one of the tunes. Most are of British origin (eg, Old Hundredth, St Ann's, Shirland), but at least one (China; recorded on Music at Sharon, Melbourne SMLP 4041) is by the New England composer Timothy Swan and one has a secular origin (In My Cottage Near the Wood). The 30 tunes of the second barrel organ are said to have included 'Blue Bells of Scotland,' 'Henry's Cottage Maid,' 'Lochaber No More,' and 'Water Painted by the Sea,' in addition to some hymn tunes. This instrument was placed in Willson's study but has not survived. The keyboard organ, though preserved in the Temple, is beyond complete restoration, lacking some of the pipes and other parts.

Whereas many Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist clergymen in 19th-century Canada bitterly opposed secular music and even instrumental accompaniment of church singing, the Children of Peace cultivated music wholeheartedly both in and outside their Temple, recognizing its educational and community-building value. Singing classes began about 1819, and a band was formed in the following year under one of the Davidites, Patrick Hughes. Richard Coates succeeded Hughes and for some years coached the individual players. According to William Lyon Mackenzie, the instruments in 1831 included 'three or four clarionets, two French horns, two bassoons, besides German and octave flutes, flageolets, &. They have also violins and violoncellos, and are masters of their delightful art' (Sketches of Canada and the United sStates, London 1833). Elsewhere in this book Mackenzie mentions bass-viols and trombones.

Although both men and women sang and played instruments, the white-clad 'chorus of virgins' was the mainstay of singing. 'The women [singers]... assemble previous to entering the temple, and march thither for public worship, two abreast, with as much regularity as a file of soldiers' (Isaac Fidler, Observations on Professions, Literature, Manners and Emigration, in the United States and Canada, Made during a Residence there in 1832, New York 1833). They would climb up the steep 'Jacob's ladder' to the gallery of the Temple and, with the instruments and the organ, join in hymns of praise, the sound floating down to the congregation below. Mackenzie considered their music 'unequalled in any part of the Upper, and scarcely surpassed even by the Catholics in the Lower province'.

The musicians were the delight not only of neighbouring villages but of the citizens of Toronto, where Willson would travel from time to time to present a petition or press for a reform. 'King David frequently goes to a great distance, in order to edify the people of other townships by his music and eloquence... He never performs such religious errantry without being accompanied by his virgins, six in number, selected from among the females of his household, for their superior voices. These virgins are conveyed in the same wagon with himself over which there is an awning, to shelter them from the inclemency of the weather, and from sultry rays. In one of the other wagons follow as many youths, who form an accompaniment to the damsels, and swell the anthems and hosannahs by vocal and instrumental music. In the remaining wagon are transported... their musical instruments... He never fails to attract a large assemblage of people... The music of his sacred band is considered curious; and the oddity of his manner, and his condemnation of the Established Church, and of the government, are approved by many' (Fidler). One such occasion was reported in Mackenzie's newspaper, The Advocate (Toronto, 20 Feb 1834) under the heading of Grand Procession: 'We understand that David Wilson of Hope, with his friends will walk in procession from their hotel to the Old King's Bench Court House... on Wednesday the 26 inst., being the day preceding the meeting of the General Convention of Delegates for the several townships of the county. They will be accompanied by music and bands, as on the occasion of the county election... The band of the township of East Gwillimbury [the location of Hope] is one of the most splendid and complete we have ever listened to..'. At home, on festive occasions the band would march 'up and down the streets of Hope, playing cheerful and enlivening airs' (Mackenzie), and monthly concerts were held in the Temple, for charitable aims. The manuscript part-book of Ira Doan of 1830 and three volumes of Richard Coates manuscript notations provide a record of the tunes played by the band from its earliest days.

The zest for music continued throughout the years, as young people would come on horseback or ox-drawn sleighs from their villages and farms to attend rehearsals at the Music Hall. A Boston singing teacher, Daniel Cory, was engaged in 1846 for two years; and a set of silver instruments was purchased in Boston for a reputed $1,500 in the 1860s. The bandleaders, Jesse Doan and from 1866 his nephew John Doan Graham (probably the only Sharonite to have compositions published), were of local stock. The Sharon Silver (or Temperance) Band, a dozen players in blue uniforms, not only entertained nearby villagers and townsfolk but on occasion appeared on Lake Simcoe steamers and in Toronto. Trewhella even asserted: 'It is on printed record that the Silver Band of Sharon competed at the great Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, and that there they won the First Prize as the best band in North America,' but the records of that event do not furnish the proof. The repertoire of the band was primarily secular and consisted largely of medleys of US tunes 'of martial swing and... sentimental appeal' (Trewhella), as well as overtures and potpourris. 'Popular music was... whistled in Sharon a year before first heard in Old Toronto' (Pearson).

As a sect the Children of Peace began to decline even before Willson's death. Yet some of the old spirit endured, and in September 1883 the choir was heard once more at the Feast of Harvest. In August 1886 the Children of Peace held their last meeting, ending one of the most colourful chapters in Canada's early music history. The music in Sharon proves that musical excellence can be found outside wealthy and sophisticated urban centres, given inspired leadership and a prominent place in the social fabric.

In 1966 John Beckwith wrote his Sharon Fragments (for SATB) to words of David Willson. Beckwith's interest in the musical practises of the Children of Peace intensified with the establishment in 1981 of the Music at Sharon festival and resulted in arrangements and compositions bridging past and present. Through the festival's setting on the Temple grounds and through frequent references in its programming to music of the Children of Peace era, the festival has created a wider awareness of Canadian pioneer life. In 1990 Music at Sharon presented Harry Somers' opera Serinette with a libretto by James Reaney about David Willson and the Children of Peace.

See also Hymns and hymn tunes


Further Reading

  • McArthur, Emily. History of the Children of Peace (Newmarket ca 1898)

    Pearson, A. Helen. 'The passing of the Children of Peace,' SatN, 30 Nov 1912

    Trewhella, Ethel Willson. 'The story of Sharon,' Newmarket Era and Express, 42 instalments, 14 June 1951-27 Mar 1952

    McFaddin, Charles E. 'A study of the buildings of the Children of Peace, Sharon, Ontario,' MA thesis, University of Toronto 1953

    The York Pioneer, vol 76, Fall 1981

    Schau, Barbara Ann, 'Sacred music at Sharon, a nineteenth century Canadian community,' MA thesis, Carleton University 1983

    Schrauwers, Albert. 'The politics of schism: the separation of the Children of Peace, 1812,' Ontario History, vol 80, Mar 1988.

    Reaney, James. 'David Willson,' DCB, vol 9

    Kallmann History of Music