458 Meylert St Laporte PA 18626
The 1830’s and 40’s were a period of intense ferment within established Protestant denominations and also saw the revelation of several new versions of Christianity. Among the many competing ideas of the time was the belief that the world would soon end with the Second Coming of Christ, an event which would usher in the millennium. Prominent among these “millennialists” was William Miller, who calculated that Christ would return to earth by May 21, 1844. This date was later recalculated to October 22, 1844. After the Great Disappointment, as the world continued, adventists (as they came to be called) concentrated on spiritual rather than physical preparation for Christ’s return.
Peter Edward Armstrong of Philadelphia, who had been a Millerite, concluded that in 1844 Christ had cleansed “the heavenly sanctuary” and was awaiting a gathering of people spiritually prepared to witness His return to earth. Armstrong took literally Isaiah’s injunction, “In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord”. He preached that such preparation must include:
1) a divine communism of believers united in their faith;
2) a perfect theocracy on earth where God’s rule was ultimate; and
3) 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. Celestia was the fruits of his efforts.
In 1850 Peter Armstrong purchased 181 acres of land in an unsettled part of the newly established Sullivan County between Laporte and Lewis Lake (later renamed Eagles Mere). Later purchases expanded his holdings to approximately 600 acres. 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 dollars a piece by 1853. It’s not clear how many people ever lived at Celestia, but existing paintings and foundations suggest that there were never more than a few small houses, the Armstrong home/store/meeting house, a variety of outbuildings used as barns and shops, a sawmill, and a brick manufactory. 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 non-resident believers. By 1860, the community was established if not flourishing.
In that year Peter Armstrong took several steps to ensure Celestia’s separation from the world of Civil War America. 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”. In order to make this separation from the secular world complete and convincing, and to demonstrate that he had no self interest in the village, Armstrong executed and recorded a deed transferring all title to four square miles to Almighty God “and to His heirs in Jesus Messiah for their proper use and behoof forever”. No longer a landlord, Armstrong believed that he could now devote his time to being an “instrument of God’s will” for those gathered to await Christ’s coming.
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 this demand was refused, a tax sale was held, and the property was purchased by A.T. Armstrong, one of Peter’s sons. This sale did not directly change the use of the land, but it must have been unsettling to the community’s beliefs.
Celestia was also disrupted 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 established a village called Glen Sharon one mile south of Sonestown (and several miles south of Celestia) in 1872. Here aspiring Celestians could resolve any doubts and show themselves fully fit to be citizens of the sacred city. Nevertheless, Celestia seems to have declined in numbers and faith.
There was a brief revival of enthusiasm at Celestia in 1880, but this energy was 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. The land continued to be owned by the Armstrong family until 1990, but it was once again “wilderness”.
Now owned almost entirely by private entities, Celestia has returned to wilderness. A 5 acre portion of the original site was donated to the Society, and a walking tour was developed to assist visitors in visualizing this lost utopian community.
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