May is Museum Month: David Willson and the Sharon Temple (1832)
This month, we are also celebrating the important role that museums play in making communities both vibrant and creative. Prior to the onset of the pandemic and the closure of these places of learning, museums across Ontario welcomed 7.5 million visits from tourists (Ontario Museum Association, 2019). In view of these institutions, we thought that we would highlight our local community museum that has deep roots in Canadian history: the Sharon Temple!
The Sharon Temple National Historic site is located on Leslie Street, next to the Civic Centre in Sharon, Ontario. The land on which the Temple rests was originally part of David Willson’s farm. Who was David Willson? He was born on June 7, 1778 in Duchess County, New York, as the only son of “poor but pious” Presbyterian farmers. He worked on his parents’ farm until he was about 16, and then served for a time on a ship called the Farmer, into which his parents had invested money. He married Phoebe Titus, who was cast out from the Society of Friends for marrying him. In 1801, he took his wife and extended family to Upper Canada and settled in Sharon on Queen Street (now called Leslie Street). In 1805, he decided to join the Yonge Street chapter of the Society of Friends (or Quakers) which was in Newmarket.
In 1812, Willson had a striking religious experience that caused him to break away from the Yonge Street Quakers and set up his own sect. The people who followed him were known as the Children of Peace, or the “Davidites”, after their leader. David Graham describes David Graham's personality in his “Recollections” of pioneer life in East Gwillimbury, saying that “he was endowed with that rare magnetism that made him a ruler of others, and [had] power over his members which was almost absolute, which he used for the good of his Society” (1908, page 4) These people originally met and held services in a small meeting house which they had built; eventually the participants grew to such a degree that they needed to erect a larger place of worship.
Figure 1: Photo of the Sharon Temple from Leslie Street, c. 1860. Photo from Wikipedia.
As such, Willson contracted Ebenezer Doan to build the temple according to his vision. The Temple was built over a period of seven years from 1825 to 1832, like the Temple of Solomon. The building is three stories tall to represent the Trinity, and measures 60 feet by 75 feet. The building possesses a square plan, and each side has tall double doors so that everyone enters on equal footing. The four columns which form a small square at the center of the building represent faith, hope, love, and charity. Suspended between the four lanterns at the top of the building is a golden ball, upon which is inscribed the word “Peace”. These and other features make it a noteworthy example of early Ontario architecture.
Figure 2: The Sharon Temple in 1929, with two people near the front door shows the true imposing nature of this edifice. From the Toronto Public Library Image Library.
After David Willson’s death in 1866 at the age of 87, the Children of Peace slowly disbanded without a charismatic leader to guide them. With the threat of demolition in 1917, a volunteer historical society called the York Pioneers raised funds to purchase both the Temple and the four-and-a-half acres of land on which it stood. They turned the site into a museum that people were able to visit, eventually boasting a baseball diamond and picnic area. In 1990, it was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. the following year, the not-for-profit organization known as the Sharon Temple Museum Society assumed the duties of running the museum from the York Pioneers; they still run the museum today, with the most recent additions being a community garden and a chicken coop!
This year, they will most likely be hosting a summer camp for children in July and August. Learn more about their offerings (both virtual and in person) at their website: https://www.sharontemple.ca/. If the museum gets a chance to open this summer, be sure to go and check it out!