CELESTIA: AN EXPERIMENT IN 19th CENTURY DIVINE COMMUNISM
A Course Paper for
Religious Utopian Communes in America
Taught by William T. Stancil, PhD
Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO
November 26, 2007
William Hinds described the Celestia Commune in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania as being completely “destitute of nearly everything belonging to a well-organized and successful community” (Hinds 402). While nearly all communes end in failure, the destitution which Hinds speaks of suggests that Celestia was fated to fail from the very onset of its establishment. With this rather negative description, one would be apt to simply disregard any significance that the Celestia Commune claimed to have. Despite such suggestions and the commune’s perennial stance on the precipice of failure, the story of Celestia is in fact a complex one. In looking more closely at the commune and specifically at the intensity of the leader at its center, one can see the uniqueness that existed in its short-lived and arguably unproductive existence.
In order to understand the essence of Celestia (sometimes spelled Celesta), perhaps the most appropriate place to begin is with the theological foundations of the commune and its leader, Peter Armstrong. Peter Armstrong was born on May 24, 1818 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into Methodist household. While in Philadelphia, Armstrong is believed to have heard the preaching’s of William Miller and, from such exposure, both he and his wife, Hannah Armstrong decided to become Millerite converts. Adventism—the type of theology that was to be eventually adopted by Armstrong—was born out of a progression of apocalypticism that can almost entirely be attributed to the Millerite following to which both Armstrong and his wife were converted. Millenarianism was undoubtedly popular in many of the religious movements born out of the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, but none such movements attracted so many adamant followers as Millerism. According to the interpretation of scripture and calculations performed by Miller, the Armageddon foretold in Messianic prophecies was to occur either on or within one year of March 21, 1843 (Arthur 161). After Miller began preaching his vision in 1833, as many as fifty thousand people believed that the end would arrive around the time Miller proposed; many of whom were so convicted in their belief that they sold, destroyed, or neglected all of their property, as it would do them little good in heaven (Butler 175). The coming and passing of March 21, 1844 was a confusing time for those who so devoutly awaited the Second Coming, but a second calculation by theologian S. S. Snow’s of the end-time date placed the Apocalypse on October 22 of that same year based on a mistake in the use of the Roman, not Jewish calendar. Such was the relief of this seemingly simple error that the end was anticipated with even more excitement by those had just been so disappointed. Probably the greatest testament to the fervor with which the Apocalypse was expected rests in the fact that October 22, 1844, which held no eschatological significance of any kind, has since been referred to as the Great Disappointment.
Following the Great Disappointment, Armstrong sought to more fully understand the Messianic prophecies which were the Millerite focus. With the help of his colleagues Hiram Edson and O. R. L. Crozier, Armstrong came to believe that the Second Coming of Christ could not occur until the earthly sanctuary had been purified. At the first advent, according to Armstrong, the earth was not ready for the salvation of Christ, martyring him and many of his followers. The world was in fact so unsuitable a place for Christ that Armstrong recalls from Luke’s gospel how Christ did not even have an adequate place to be born and had to lay in a manger (Bender 4). At his ascension into heaven, however, Christ did prepare the heavenly altar for man’s salvation: “We have such a high priest who is set on the right hand of the throne of Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man”(Hebrew 8: 1-2, King James Version). Since Jesus had done his part in heaven, it was left to man to do his part on earth so that the world may be ready for the Second Coming of Christ.
Armstrong interpreted the passages of the bible with prophetic commandments very fundamentally, taking to heart especially that of Isaiah 40:3: “In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Through these and several other key passages, Armstrong felt that he was being called to lead the creation of the New Jerusalem, or Zion. The location and foundation were obvious to Armstrong. The Book of Revelation contains a detailed description of the New Jerusalem envisioned by the author at the end of the Great Tribulation, which was inhabited by the 144,000 saved persons who were marked with the sign of God (Rev. 7: 4). Psalm 48:1-2 states, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountains of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.”
As the New Jerusalem, Celestia was to be the city that would become the Kingdom of God on earth, since Armstrong believed, in accordance with the Millerite movement, that the Kingdom was already prepared in heaven (Ibid 11). According to Revelation, it is also the place called Armageddon, where the battle between good and evil takes place at the end of the Great Tribulation, before Christ could return. Armstrong believed that his temple would be the place of refuge for those who gathered in community under God’s divine order for salvation, while all those on the outside were merely the wicked who would received their retribution (Bender 11). This order that Armstrong proposes is part of a “Divine Communism” that characterizes the covenant relationship that the faithful have with God. The purpose of this is established in Celesta’s major publication, the Day Star of Zion and Banner of Life: “To advocate and organize a Divine Communism of ‘Faith, Love and Purity’ which is ‘the bound of perfectness’ and outburst of the Kingdom of Heaven; and thus hasten the coming the world’s Redeemer” (10). Only in this manner, Armstrong believed, could people truly receive the love of God, and only through full commitment to the community, including the abandonment of all property and sinful ways, could the Kingdom of God be realized.
From these theological foundations, Armstrong set out to establish his commune on the mountain. On September 27, 1850, as previously mentioned, Armstrong found his mountain and purchased 181 acres of land set in the mountains of Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, near the city of Laporte for $450.00 (13). Over the next decade, he purchased over 600 acres in the area. Upon this land, Armstrong set to work on building Zion so as to attract believers who could “join themselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant” (Bender 4).
Armstrong’s only requirement for those seeking to live at Celestia was that they have a sincere faith in heart and spirit. With these thin guidelines, people began to move to Celestia. The exact population of Celestia at its peak is debated. Despite only having twelve confirmed buildings within the town, there are claims that over one thousand people lived there. The growth in Celestians can be attributed to Peter Armstrong’s travels back and forth to Philadelphia, where he encouraged families to move and buy property at his commune. Construction began at the site, and soon, buildings, including the Armstrong home and a town mill, were established.
In 1864, Peter Armstrong began to publish The Day Star of Zion and Banner of Life, the newspaper that would publish the beliefs of Celestia, attract new members, and secure donations to the commune for the construction of Armstrong’s Temple. It managed to achieve all three of these goals. The newspaper became Celestia’s holy book, second only to the authority of the Bible itself. While only four editions were printed in the Day Star’s first year, it became a staple of Celestia and the main source for understanding Peter Armstrong’s complex theology.
Like many of the communes which arose during the mid-to-late 19th century, Celestia faced its fair share of obstacles from the outside world. The first of these came in 1864 when Charles Russell, a member of Celestia, received a draft card for the Union Army. Armstrong immediately wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking for Russell’s exemption from the Civil War. He also influenced other members of Sullivan County’s government to write and ask for Celestian exemption. When President Lincoln responded directly that Russell would be exempted, Armstrong saw it as a sign of God’s blessing of Celestia. Later, Armstrong sent a petition to the State Legislator, asking that all Celestians be considered peaceable aliens and wilderness exiles (21). Armstrong’s intent was to avoid future draft conflicts and to escape paying taxes on all the land that he had acquired. While waiting for the legislature to respond, Armstrong approached President Lincoln himself, hoping to sway the President to intervene on Celestia’s behalf. After meeting in Washington, Lincoln referred Armstrong to the local examining board for Celestia’s district. The board, upon discovering that Celestia’s land was deeded to Armstrong himself, attempted to avoid the situation by presenting Armstrong with two difficult options; either give up self-interest by deeding his land away, or give up his pursuit of wilderness exile status (22). Peter Armstrong came up with an ingenious way around this option. On June 14, 1864, Armstrong deeded his 600 acres to “Almighty God, who inhabiteth Eternity, and to His heirs in Jesus Messiah" (22). By doing so, he retained personal authority of the land, but also pushed the issue of Celestian tax and draft status. Before further legal conflict between Celestian and the local district government could continue, President Lincoln himself granted exemption status to Celestia. While Armstrong considered this another great success, the chance to live in a tax free city where no one could be drafted attracted new members who did not have a sincere faith of heart and spirit.
New members leached off of Celestia, putting forth little effort in the commune. Increased membership without increased production put a burden on Armstrong both financially and spiritually. He became frustrated with new members, and proposed a solution: the foundation of a second, trial town for new members. In 1872, Armstrong purchased more land in Davidson Township and Sonestown for $3,282.81. With the land, a small town was created approximately six miles from Celestia and was named Glen Sharon. The town included a general store, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a lathe mill, homes for Armstrong’s sons and boarding houses with meeting halls. At Glen Sharon, new members were introduced to the communal way of life and watched over carefully before being allowed to move to Celestia.
Publication of the Day Star had ceased after its initial year, leaving little known history of Celestia between 1865 and 1872, and by the time its publication resumed, the commune was already immersed in further problems. Tax issues, as well as the presence of unhappy and lazy members, all which will be further discussed in the following section, were pushing Celestia to the point of collapse. Perhaps in a last ditch effort to preserve the ideal image of the commune he had set out to create, Armstrong proposed the construction of the Temple that he had planned. Despite members fleeing the commune in large numbers, he made plans for the laying of the Temple’s foundation stone, which was nothing more than a large rock he had found near the commune. Desperate to increase Celestia’s population, he used this construction to try to lure back members who had left and those of his followers who were previously unwilling to move to the commune, through letters and publications of his newspaper. It is unknown if the Temple stone was ever actually laid, as Celestia’s decline spiraled out of control in the early 1880’s. However when touring the remains of Celestia, stacks of mortared bricks believed to be for the temple are the only hint of the structure that remain.
These fairly impoverished remains are only increased in their destitution when compared to the grand plans which Armstrong drew up. As formerly mentioned, the layout for Celestia as the New Jerusalem was obvious to Armstrong, and he claimed to have had an inspired vision for the physical layout of the commune on his 600 acres. Revelation 21:16 gives a description of the city Armstrong envisioned, “And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth, and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal” (12). As the book of Revelation suggests, the layout for Celestia was equal in length and width consisting of nine city blocks: Eight residential blocks surrounding one public block reserved as the Temple Square. Each residential block was 340 square feet with 140 feet by 100 feet space for a public park and the rest of the block was divided into 44 lots. Each lot measured an unusual 100 feet by 20 feet and was sold for $10.00. As strange as the lots may be, there is a significant amount of speculation regarding the total number of lots sold through out the duration of the commune. The estimated numbers range from 1 lot to 300 lots (12). Even though some lots were sold, the structured layout for the commune was never fully fulfilled.
The final layout of Celestia was far from the vision projected by Armstrong and the book of Revelation. The most obvious characteristic that displayed the lack of construction at Celestia is the fact that the Temple was never built. In Armstrong’s vision of Celestia, he included a Temple in the center city block that was said to be the Lord’s House. Bender suggests that Armstrong’s inspiration for the Temple stemmed from Isaiah 2:2; “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains” (8). This grand Temple, had it been built, would have been 340 square feet, four-stories high with a pyramid shaped roof pointing to the heavens, and hold 144,000 believers (8). Armstrong also believed that if there were not to be a Temple for the second coming that God would not have allowed him to build in the first place (Bender 9). In reality only a handful of buildings were erected at Celestia and were not arranged in the original format that was drafted by Armstrong. The known erected structures at Celestia were: three houses, a barn, five small unidentified buildings, two small barns, and a round spring house (15).
Within these vast plans for the physical organization of the community there existed little room for the structuring of day to day life within Celestia. Armstrong, a biblical fundamentalist who rejected voting, conferences and debates, was not one for the organization of day to day activities and methods. The various activities of community members is minimally mentioned with the exception of their various economic endeavors which included the sheering of wool, the moderately successful harvesting of an apple orchard, and Hannah Armstrong’s running of a general store out of her home (15). Even their day to day religious practices, commonly the foundation for any utopian commune, were significantly lacking. Their only consistent practice involved weekly meetings on Saturday where worship service was conducted by Reverend Mr. Curry, an outside preacher (17). For the members of Celestia, day to day life simply consisted of a seemingly never-ending attempt to keep the community’s feet beneath itself.
Arguably the most difficult task in following any religious utopian commune is documenting its fall. Such a large number of factors play a part in the communities’ decline that it becomes hard to pinpoint one specific reason for dissolution. In looking at Celestia, such complexity surely dominates the path which the community took during its final years. William Hinds, in his brief discussion of Celestia, seems to place the blame upon the fanaticism of Peter Armstrong. He cites one member of the community who states that Armstrong’s “‘fanaticism so forced itself upon us that we were compelled to leave the place’” (Hinds 401). Hinds’ opinion of Celestia was quite negative, describing it as being “destitute of nearly everything belonging to a well-organized and successful community” (402). But surely, we cannot blame the entirety of Celestia’s downfall on such a vaguely mentioned “destitution.” As previously stated, the case of Celestia and its downfall, despite its rather short period of existence, is far more complex than that, and perhaps the best place to begin when considering the commune’s end is with a believer by the name of Mary McClain.
Moved by the continually published Day Star, Miss Mary McClain decided that the communal life atop the modern day Zion was the life for her. Furthermore, she decided to donate her life saving’s to the commune, an offer which Armstrong readily accepted with the community’s financial troubles constantly looming. McClain was to be a teacher within the community and Armstrong gave the impression that Celestia was teeming within prospective students. Much to her surprise, McClain arrived to find a community that appeared to be fleeting more than prospering, and the student population she so expected was painfully low. It was at this point that the dissatisfied woman asked Armstrong for her money back. The request was denied. The ensuing argument ended with McClain remaining in Glen Sharon, Celestia’s probationary community, in a home built by Armstrong himself.
It was from this seemingly trapped position that Miss McClain began to defame the efforts at Celestia, specifically criticizing the work of Peter Armstrong. She wrote to various papers describing her situation, and highlighted the community’s lack of progress, specifically mentioning that the Temple which was to be at the center of Celestia’s efforts had not been erected despite her personal contribution of more than $1000.00 (33). McClain’s most defamatory claim dealt with Armstrong’s keeping of a housemaid as a “strumpet” (33).
While Miss McClain’s writings surely held a great impact over, if nothing else, the community’s reputation, even more relevant issues surfaced, confining Celestia to a dead end that it would ultimately be unable to escape. Despite Armstrong’s effort to deed the land to God and therefore leave it exempt from any societal responsibilities, in 1876, the Sullivan County Treasurer, Walter Spencer, came to collect Celestia’s back taxes which had been compiling for years (34). Unable to pay the undisclosed amount, Spencer was forced to sell the land. The purchaser of the land was none other than A.T. Armstrong, one of Armstrong’s seven children, and it was for this reason that Armstrong still held hope for the fulfillment of his Adventist vision.
A certain revival was sparked within Armstrong at this time, and from 1877 till Celestia’s complete dissolution in 1884, Armstrong devoted himself to the actual establishment of the Temple which was to be the center of Christ’s eventual welcoming. His devotion was, however, questionable at best. Various records illustrate that Armstrong halted actual labor on the Temple in 1880 due to what Armstrong himself described as a “‘certain dispensation of providence’” (35). There is speculation that this dispensation stemmed from the presence of two visionaries at Celestia who respectively placed a certain strain on Armstrong due to what we can surmise to be visions that were contradictory to the aspirations of the community. The strain caused Armstrong to cease in the publication of the Day Star, the major source for the community’s recruitment, for the second and final time, and from 1884 the community slowly dwindled into non-existence.
The complexity concerning Celestia’s downfall surrounds the fact that the community itself was constantly in a state of decline. The fire of Adventism, which so drove Armstrong’s life from his inception into the belief in the 1840s, never captured the minds of the masses. Looking at the path which Celestia took, a number of assumptions can be made concerning the community’s lack of prosperity. As previously mentioned, in their early years, prior to the establishment of the probationary village at Glen Sharon, Armstrong basically allowed anyone to enter into the community so long as they professed a shared belief in Christ (12). This essentially disabled the masses of the community from sharing in the idealism which Armstrong possessed. No member of Celestia, not even Armstrong’s immediate family, ever fully embraced the vision as it was set out by Armstrong. There was never a sense of widespread conviction within the community, and this apparent lack of sincerity in belief surely fueled the community’s slow demise. None could ever fully give themselves to the beliefs of the community, because none could ever match the idealism, or perhaps fanaticism, of the community’s leader. The community’s end essentially came in 1884, three years prior to Armstrong’s death in June of 1887. But had Armstrong passed before the Celestia’s end, it cannot even be speculated as to who would have succeeded his leadership, suggesting that perhaps Celestia was simply bound to fail before it ever met success.
Although Millerism and the later Adventist movement attracted so many followers, few were so convicted as Peter Armstrong as to begin work immediately in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. His inability to find many believers who could share such a fundamentalist understanding of the Apocalypse greatly weakened Celestia’s integrity, and few of those who did join the community could conform long to Armstrong’s theocratic absolutism. While its many failings as a community doomed it to dissolution, Celestia was one of the most acute manifestations of Apocalypticism as it appeared in the 19th century in America.
Altman, Howard. “Ghost Towns.” Philadelphia City Paper: November 2007.
Arthur, David. “Millerism.” The Rise of Adventism. New York, New York: Harper
& Row, 1974.
Bender, Wayne. From Wilderness to Wilderness: Celestia. Dushore, Pennsylvania:
The Sullivan Review, 1980.
Butler, Jonathan. “Adventism and the American Experience.” The Rise of
Adventism. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Hinds, William. American Communities and Cooperative Colonies. Honolulu,
Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2004.
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