CelestiaOctober 13, 2006
Recently I came across information on a Pennsylvanian Millerite named Peter E. Armstrong. Unlike the majority of Millerites, following the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, Armstrong’s faith remained unshaken.
Armstrong took literally Isaiah’s command, “in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord” and preached that such preparation must include:
- a divine communism of believers united in their faith;
- a perfect theocracy on earth where God’s rule was ultimate;
- and, construction of a physical temple.
Armstrong believed his vocation was to undertake and lead such preparation by establishing a new city, pure from past sins, a sacred place where true believers could “join themselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant”, live according to divine law under the direction of an inspired leader, build a Temple, and enter into eternal life without seeing death.
In 1850, Armstrong and a small group of followers established a community outside the town of Laporte in the Endless Mountains of Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. In honor of the great heavenly event that he predicted would occur on that very site, Armstrong called this place Celestia. A town plan was laid out in squares with lots measuring 20 by 100 feet, and it was reported that over 300 of these lots had been sold at $10 apiece by 1853. By 1860, the Christian utopia of Celestia was spread over 600 acres. The small but thriving village included a machine shop, a meeting house, sawmill, and store, which members owned communally. Celestia was primarily a self-sufficient farming community with some income derived from sales of wool and maple products, sales of lots, profits from the store, and contributions from nonresident believers. By 1860, the community was established—if not flourishing.
To make their purpose plain to all, Armstrong deeded four square miles of Celestia to “Almighty God and to his heirs in Jesus Messiah for their proper use and…forever.” Then they waited for signs of Christ’s return to earth.
They didn’t have to wait long. To the residents of Celestia and other millennialist Christians across the nation, the opening guns of the Civil War in 1860 were a sure sign of Christ’s Second Coming. Armstrong forbade the young men of the community from registering for the draft and the residents of Celestia continued their private mission of devotion, prayer, and watchful waiting, but still Christ did not appear. After one of the believers received a draft notice to report to the Union Army, President Lincoln was persuaded to exempt all members of the community from military service. Armstrong also petitioned the State House of Representatives for official recognition that those in Celestia who remained faithful were “peaceable aliens and wilderness exiles from the rest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania”.
“Believers should not waste their time and efforts fixing dates,” Armstrong wrote in The Day Star of Zion, a newspaper he published in Celestia, “Rather, Christ’s command was to prepare him a house and watch in readiness for His return.”
By deeding the land to God, Peter Armstrong assumed it would be considered sacred land and not subject to property taxes. This view was not shared by the County authorities, and around 1876 payment of back taxes was demanded. When Armstrong’s followers were unable to come up with the funds the land was sold. Armstrong’s son purchased the property, but the spirit and faith of the community began to dissipate. Celestia had also been disturbed by the arrival of families whose interests were less spiritual than secular. Some apparently sought draft exemption, or an escape from normal society, or to live fairly easily at community expense. In order to protect believers at Celestia from such newcomers, Armstrong had established a village called Glen Sharon one mile south of Sonestown in 1872. Here aspiring Celestians could resolve any doubts and show themselves fully fit to be citizens of the sacred city. despite this, Celestia seems to have declined in numbers and faith. There was a brief revival of enthusiasm at Celestia in 1880, but this energy soon dissipated. Armstrong himself spent increasingly less time there and was clearly unable to transform his original vision into reality. When Peter Armstrong died at Celestia on June 20, 1887, aged 69, the community had already disintegrated, though a few believers lingered for several years.
Abandoned and forgotten, it became a ghost town. Over the years, homes collapsed and fields returned to forest as nature quietly reclaimed the celestial city.
Sullivan County Historical Society Article