Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - John McIntyre, Children of Peace

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

John McIntyre, Children of Peace

Paul Nathanson
McIntyre, John. Children of Peace, Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 1994. xvi + 260 pp., 18 illus., hardcover $42.95, ISBN 0-7735-1195-4.

1 In Children of Peace, W. John McIntyre tells the story of a Utopian community that flourished in the wilderness of Ontario between 1812 and 1890. It was led by the charismatic and sophisticated David Willson. The movement he founded focussed attention on direct revelation to every individual of the "Inner Light," by then a contentious issue even among the Quakers (and, in one form or another, among many other Protestants as well). The Children of Peace could be considered a movement that failed, of course, because only physical remnants of it have survived to this day. But it could also be considered a success, as McIntyre points out, because for several generations it met fundamental human needs: spiritual, social, economic and political. The community disintegrated only when its isolation from the larger world came to an end.

2 The methodological point of reference for most historians is the written text. For McIntyre, it is material culture. He is by no means the first to look at artifacts as windows through which to see the people who make and use them. Anthropologists in general and archaeologists in particular have always done so. (When the latter rely primarily on one particular kind of artifact, the written text, it is because they have little or nothing else to rely on.) McIntyre's definition of material culture, following that of James Deetz, is very broad: "that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior" (p. xiv). Included are not only artifacts (such as clothes, utensils and buildings) but also landscape (nature transformed in connection with farms, say, or cities), physical motion (in forms such as dance or ritual) and language (referring to speech, apparently, because, as Deetz had put it, "words.. .are air masses shaped by the speech apparatus according to culturally acquired rules" (p. xiv)). In short, material culture includes everything apart from raw nature (although, for some reason, it does not seem to include written texts).

3 The problem with such a broad definition is that material culture becomes virtually synonymous with culture itself. But this theoretical problem is of no practical importance in McIntyre's work. Of great practical importance is the range of evidence this definition allows him to consider. "Early on," McIntyre acknowledges, "it became apparent that material culture alone would not provide all the information necessary to understand the Children of Peace" (p. xvi). As a result, he developed an interdisciplinary approach. McIntyre has fostered "a partnership between material culture study and other approaches to social history, drawing on the strengths of each without claiming superiority for either words or objects" (p. xvi).

4 In what could be considered introductory chapters, McIntyre discusses two aspects of the historical context: the Quaker background from which the Children of Peace emerged; and the visionary experiences that prompted David Willson to found the new community. In both cases, he relies heavily on artifacts: the Quaker meeting house of those who would eventually become the Children of Peace; and some painted banners the latter used in their own form of worship. The next two chapters, on belief and ritual, are based primarily on evidence from public architecture. One chapter on the economic organization of everyday life is based partly on written documents. But the following one, on domestic life, is based on evidence from architecture and furniture. The final two chapters are on the community's demise. Only these, like the first, are based primarily on written documents.

5 As a result, the Children of Peace are known to us not only in terms of what was articulated by the leaders (the sermons, poems, letters, architectural plans and finely crafted furniture of highly trained and educated individuals) but also in terms of what was experienced by the followers (the buildings and implements that formed the fabric of everyday life for everyone). In spite of their characteristic egalitarianism, after all, the Children of Peace themselves acknowledged the obvious fact that some people were leaders — as McIntyre points out, they occupied prominent places at worship in the temple — while others were not. In spite of their characteristic "plainness," moreover, the Children of Peace acknowledged a desire for rather elaborate liturgical forms. Neither of these things would be self-evident, to say the least, from written records alone. These people did not talk or even think about what outsiders might consider a rudimentary form of hierarchy or a sophisticated system of ritual. The tangible remnants of their world, nevertheless, indicate that such things were by no means beyond their interest. For this reason alone, McIntyre's work is extremely valuable.

6 This book should be of particular interest to the readers of this journal because it shows how effectively material culture can express the world view of its creators. In this case, material culture was given definitive form by three skilled craftsmen: Willson himself (a recent convert to Quakerism) along with Ebenezer and John Doan (who had come from Quaker families). Together, they adapted traditional forms (characterized primarily by the "plainness" associated with Quakerism) to suit the needs of a new movement (an offshoot of Quakerism characterized, perhaps ironically, by elaborate ritual). From this point of view, the most interesting chapters are those that deal with the temple and the meeting house.

7 Although the latter had many precedents familiar to its builders, the former had few; it was intended, after all, to represent the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Even the number of days it would take to build was calculated carefully with that in mind. The Children of Peace stressed the importance of architectural symbolism. In this, they were (knowingly or otherwise) following in the footsteps of so many religious groups (and not only Christian ones). Willson's temple, being sacred space, corresponded on a microcosmic level to a cosmic prototype. The prototype itself had corresponded, of course, to a cosmic archetype. Likewise, the Byzantine church was not merely a building in which the communal activities of everyday life took place; it was a kind of sacrament in which worshippers experienced eternity. This was expressed both vertically, as it were, and horizontally. The elevation represented a sacred hierarchy: over the altar was the dome of heaven, surveyed by an all-seeing and all-knowing Christ the pantokrator (ruler of the universe); smaller domes featured Mary or other aspects of Christ; on the walls lower down were inhabitants of the Kingdom: the evangelists, prophets, saints, martyrs and so on. The floor plan, on the other hand, represented sacred geography: every section of the church (the vestibule, the nave, the chapels and so on) represented one stop on a symbolic pilgrimage to the redemptive site of burial and resurrection (that is, the altar). The Gothic cathedral, too, was more than a building; it was a summation in stone of all knowledge (which is to say, of reality itself). Ultimately, then, the origin of Willson's temple can be traced beyond his personal interest in biblical symbolism and numerology to an intuitive sense of the sacred.

8 The origins of Willson's meeting house are harder to sort out. Like may other Christians, he acknowledged spiritual, historical and symbolic ties to the Jews. As early as the sixteenth century, Europeans began to think about the New World as a New Promised Land. By the eighteenth century, many Americans began to think of their new nation as a New Israel with a new mission. Few of these Christians wanted much contact with contemporary Jews (except, of course, in the context of missionary activity). Willson made no attempt to convert Jews, on the other hand, but he might well have sought out Jews and been influenced by them both liturgically and architecturally. There were no synagogues in Upper Canada, to be sure, but there were several that he might have seen in New York City (where Willson had lived) and a particularly beautiful one in Newport, Rhode Island.

9 Although McIntyre discusses this in connection with the temple, he does not do so in connection with the meeting house. The fact is, however, that a connection between the synagogue and the meeting house is far more obvious than between the synagogue and the temple (either the new one in Ontario or the ancient one in Jerusalem). Like the meeting house (or almost any other Protestant place of worship), the synagogue is a domus ecclesiae (a house of assembly), not a domus dei (the house where God lives). The synagogue, which first appeared during the Babylonian Exile, is designed for the proclamation (and study) of Torah, not the direct or mystical experience of holiness. It was the home, not the synagogue, that became a functional equivalent for the Temple (which was destroyed by the Romans in the first century). Every home is a temple, every dining table an altar, every Jew a priest. And the symbolism is not merely theoretical; it is expressed in the most concrete terms as defined by Jewish law: the preparation and consumption of food, the inauguration of sacred time and so forth.

10 If Willson had seen any synagogues, he would have remembered them well as models for his meeting house. Unlike most churches, traditional synagogues are not derived architecturally from the ancient Roman basilica. They are not long buildings in which everyone faces the same direction and observes the clergy performing at one end; they are (more or less) square buildings in which everyone faces the centre where lay people are reading or expounding scripture. (An "ark" containing the Torah scrolls is placed against one wall, it is true, but the scrolls are taken during the liturgy to a reading desk on a raised platform at the building's centre.) It could be argued that the synagogue was a more remote source for Willson than the Quaker meeting house. Even so, the synagogue might have been a more important source. The Quaker meeting is very different from the Jewish liturgy; austerity and informality are as characteristic of the former, in fact, as elaboration and formality are of the latter. And Willson's form of worship resembles that of the Jews, not the Quakers. Willson might or might not have seen a synagogue: the parallels might be purely coincidental. Judging purely on the evidence of material culture, though, I must at least suspect a direct link between the synagogue and Willson's meeting house.

11 There are a few other problems. For example, McIntyre ignores the tradition of churches on the round, or "centralized" plan — such as those of Renaissance Italy — in his discussion of egalitarian possibilities in architecture. These problems are very few, however, and very minor. Children of Peace is a brilliantly conceived, superbly executed and beautifully written study.