A thin ribbon of unsurfaced road, Yonge Street, stretched between “Muddy York”, Upper Canada’s capital (now Toronto), and the shores of Lake Simcoe and the village of Hope (now Sharon). Hope was settled by followers of a Quaker schismatic, David Willson, who had formed a group, the Children of Peace, in the midst of the War of 1812. Called by a vision to “ornament the Christian Church with all the glory of Israel” the Children of Peace rebuilt Solomon’s temple, the seat of their “New Jerusalem.” This three tiered building, sixty feet square, and seventy-five feet high, was “calculated to inspire the beholder with astonishment; its dimensions – its architecture – its situation – are all so extraordinary.”[1] The Children of Peace were economic and political innovators as well, and helped form Canada’s first farmers’ cooperative and credit union. The primary purpose of the temple was not as a place of worship. The Children of Peace gathered there just once a month to collect alms for the poor. The Children of Peace, having fled a cruel and uncaring pharaoh, viewed themselves as the new Israelites lost in the wilderness of Upper Canada. And yet they remained tethered to the old order by Yonge Street, a military road, and the road to market. [2]

This blog is about the political implications of their egalitarian economic and social vision – for both their time and ours. The Children of Peace played a critical, though unrecognized role in the organization of both the democratic reform and an allied cooperative movement in Upper Canada. David Willson was a radical democrat who sought to protect the weak. The temple was built four square, symmetrical on each side, to symbolize the equality of all people who entered. The Children of Peace were avid supporters of newspaper publisher and reform leader William Lyon Mackenzie. Willson, and other members such as Samuel Hughes, were key organizers of the Canadian Alliance Society, the reform political organization. They were also central to the building of “radical hall,” a meeting place for reformers in Toronto where they frequently held meetings for worship. There, according to the tories, Willson preached of “the injustice practised towards the world by all those who possess an abundant share of the good things of life. That they are all usurpers and tyrants; that there ought neither to be masters nor servants; that all mankind are equal; and that it is the duty of the poor to pull down the rich.”[3]

Given the general absence of effective democratic institutions in the colony, it is important to ask how democratic skills and values were fostered such that the reform movement could plausibly enlist public support in the face of widespread violent opposition. Why should more democracy seem the answer to the colony’s woes to men like David Willson and Samuel Hughes?

[1] Colonial Advocate 18 Sept 1828.

[2] Schrauwers, Albert Awaiting the Millennium: The Children of Peace and the Village of Hope 1812-1889 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1993), 108-129.

[3] D. Wilkie, Sketches of a Summer Trip to New York and the Canadas (Edinburgh, 1837), 203-5.


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