December 17, 2014

Children of Peace – Quakers in York

Before the War of 1812, many people emigrated from the newly formed U.S. due to persecution based on their beliefs. A large number of Quakers, Mennonites and Dunkers moved to Upper Canada due to persecution. During the American Revolution, people from these groups incurred arrests and heavy fines from Patriots who believed they were Loyalists due to their pacifist beliefs.

In Upper Canada, pacifist groups were permitted to practice their faith and were exempt from militia service for an annual fee of five pounds per man and these groups had to provide draft animals, wagons, carts and sleighs on military demand. The Mennonites and Dunkers largely accepted these terms, but the Quakers did not want to contribute to anything that promoted bloodshed. If a man refused to pay the fee or provide draft animals, the government jailed him for a month and seized sufficient property to cover the fine and costs of the sheriff.
David Willson, ca 1866

Many Quakers lived north of York along Yonge Street, a major transportation lane for the movement of military supplies. This meant that the Quakers suffered from a heavy demand for their animals and were in frequent conflict with militia officers. In high demand, many Quakers consented to the military’s demands but some purists formed a group known as the Children of Peace led by David Willson. By the end of the war, at least a quarter of Yonge Street’s Quakers joined the group in search of a spiritual community that resisted demands by the outside world of politics and strife.

After the War of 1812, David Willson’s Children of Peace participated in the turbulent political atmosphere that emerged after the war. Some group members even participated on the side of Mackenzie during the Upper Canada Rebellion. After the failure of the rebellion, the group continued to push for responsible government. After Willson’s death in 1866, the sect continued until the end of the 1880s.  

If you want to know more about religious groups and minorities during the War of 1812, check out Alan Taylor’s book The Civil War of 1812 for more information. 

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