Burleigh, Celia

Celia Burleigh
Celia Burleigh

Celia Burleigh (September 18, 1826-July 25, 1875) was ordained at Brooklyn, Connecticut, on October 5, 1871, the first woman to enter Unitarian ministry. Had this event not occurred, she would be remembered chiefly as a writer, editor, public speaker, and activist in a number of reform movements, preeminently women’s rights. Her ministry was curtailed in two years’ time by the advance of terminal illness, and her short life span did not permit an assemblage of recollections or the self-assessment these would have prompted. As such, an understanding of her life and career must be gleaned chiefly from newspaper reports, conference proceedings, and her own scattered writings.

She was born at Cazenovia, New York, on September 18, 1826. Nothing is known of her parents or her early life, except that it was at some stage marked by personal suffering that instilled a strength and grace of character. She married C. B. Kellum in 1844 and moved with him from Albany to Cincinnati. Her writing career began there in local newspapers, and she became literary editor of a journal called The Great West in 1849, but lost this position in a merger in 1850. Divorced from Kellum, she moved to New York City in 1850, where she remained until about 1856.

In 1851 she married Charles Chauncey Burr, an editor and lecturer who had been a Universalist minister. Attracted for a time to an examination of spiritualism, Burr was involved in the Swedenborgian church in New York City during the 1850s. This marriage also ended in divorce. As Celia M. Burr, she wrote for newspapers and monthly magazines, and even tried her hand as a lyricist, publishing at least two songs in collaboration with musicians. After 1855 she served as a kind of housemother in a co-educational boarding school. A period as a teacher in Syracuse seems to have preceded her next professional move.

In 1862, she accepted the position of secretary and companion to the educator Emma Willard, then 75. The move to Willard’s household on the grounds of the Woman’s Seminary at Troy, New York, was an important one for Celia Burr, providing her with a secure environment. A fond and supportive relationship between the two women developed over the three shared domestic years, continuing afterward in correspondence. Willard was viewed as distant from the women’s rights movement, but Celia sought to correct this impression in an 1871 article: “Mrs. Willard . . . insisted that the government could never be rightly administered till woman had a voice in making the laws.”

The greatest flowering of Celia’s life was ushered in by a proposal of marriage from William Henry Burleigh in 1865. Burleigh had been closely associated with the Rev. Samuel J. May in Brooklyn, Connecticut, helping to edit an abolitionist newspaper there in 1833. Raised in orthodox Calvinism, he became Unitarian late in life. He wrote poetry and hymns, often included in Unitarian and Universalist hymnals. Celia had met the social activist during a brief stay in Syracuse in 1850, and they developed a close friendship in her early New York years. Appointed harbormaster of New York, W.H. Burleigh suffered tremendous emotional losses in 1863-65 with the deaths of his father, wife, son, and daughter, and began correspondence with Celia. With great sensitivity and respect, he approached Mrs. Willard for her assistant’s hand, and the two were married on September 7, 1865. As members of the Second Unitarian Society in Brooklyn, New York, the Burleighs were close to its minister, John White Chadwick, himself a reformer. With her husband’s support, she began lecturing at lyceums and became an active participant in reform movements.

In 1868, she was one of twelve founding members of Sorosis, a group created under the leadership of Jane Croly, a New York journalist, to promote exchanges among woman with literary and artistic interests. Celia found the atmosphere of intellectual communication in Sorosis so genial and supportive “that every possibility of my nature seemed intensified and all its latent powers quickened into life.” The group had a seminal impact on the development of organizations for women. Celia herself was soon organizing the Brooklyn (New York) Woman’s Club, which she served as first president, 1869-70.

From 1869 to 1871, her name is prominently associated with Woman Suffrage Conventions as a delegate, speaker, or officer. She addressed the 1869 Woman’s Parliament in New York on the rights of children, emphasizing the equivalent educational needs of both sexes, and noting that “to answer rightly the questions of children would give scope for the wisdom of all the ancients. Man made in the image of God can be satisfied only by the infinite, and the child has a mind no less insatiable.” At the American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Cleveland, in 1869, she became one of eight Vice Presidents at large. Fellow activists described her as graceful and earnest, and she was an eloquent speaker in defense of issues she felt to be crucial. She was a passionate advocate of divorce reform, placing herself at the forefront of the women’s movement on this issue at the November 1870 conventions in Cleveland and Detroit, emphasizing a woman’s “ownership of person” and duty to escape “unholy alliances”. Celia was identified by herself and others as an advocate of dress reform, having donned the Bloomer costume of a short dress and Turkish trousers, which afforded less restrictive movement and normal breathing. As she wrote to Charlotte Wilbour from her clinic in October 1873, “We should probably all appear at the Congress in our short dresses. You that have nerves prepare to shiver now. I confess that it seems a good deal of a trial but believing as honestly as I do that the present dress of women is the greatest obstacle in the way of their advancement I do not see how I can avoid entering my protest against it not only by word but deed.”

Before W. H. Burleigh died in March 1871, he had urged his wife to pursue a career in the ministry. She also received encouragement from John Chadwick and Mary Livermore . In the summer of 1871, she accepted the offer of the First Ecclesiastical Society of Brooklyn, Connecticut, to fill its pulpit for eight weeks. “The invitation of the Brooklyn people afforded me an opportunity to test myself. If I accept, I thought I shall know whether the pulpit is the place where I can give fullest expression to myself. This may be God’s voice calling me to the very work for which my experiences have made me most fit.” In preparation, she arranged to deliver her first sermon at Unity Chapel, a Unitarian congregation in Brooklyn, New York. The novelty of female preaching attracted about 100 people, including reporters from several New York newspapers. In Boston, The Christian Register reacted with critical commentary, but her performance in Connecticut, from the end of July 1871, brought forth a call to serve as regular minister for one year. This call she reluctantly accepted, “if I could be ordained their minister without subscribing to any creed but the golden rule[,] or pledging myself to anything more binding than to utter day by day the highest truth that should be revealed to me.” The only remaining question was to find “ministers liberal enough” to ordain her on such a broad platform.

Among those officiating at the October 1871 ordination were the Rev. John Chadwick, the Rev. Phebe Hanaford, and Julia Ward Howe. Henry Ward Beecher forwarded a letter of strong support. The spirit of the occasion was summed up in Celia’s address at the subsequent ordination of Mary H. Graves: “Both men and women are needed for the work. Nor is this work of the ministry a new work for women. It is the work she has always been doing. . . . In the work of the ministry she will be carrying into a broader field the priestly office which she has always exercised in the family.”

Over the two years that followed, Celia endeared herself to the congregation through the human quality of her preaching, and engineered changes, including the inauguration of a church Thanksgiving dinner, a meeting room, and the building of a stage for plays. She overcame an aversion to the making of formal prayers and accommodated herself to the symbolic practices of baptism and communion that had continued in Brooklyn: “I was unwilling to omit any expected and customary rite, anything that might be helpful to those I had come to serve. . . . The whole question . . . hinged upon their helpfulness. Were they aids to a good life? Could their place be supplied by a principle within?” In 1872 she delivered a sermon at the Channing Conference at Fairhaven, Mass., the first by a woman. “If the church would lead[,] it must not fear to go forward, and while conserving all that is valuable in the past, it must be intent upon an ever unfolding revelation adapted to the soul’s constantly increasing needs.”

Early in 1873 she began to grow weak from the effects of breast cancer, and by fall she found it incumbent upon her to resign, though the Society declined to call another minister as long as she lived. She went for treatment to the water-cure establishment of Dr. J. C. Jackson at Dansville, New York. Burleigh was able to attend a women’s congress in New York in October 1873, but continued to decline. Her last days were spent in Syracuse, where she died on July 25, 1875.

According to her wishes, her body was returned to Brooklyn, Connecticut, for burial. J.W. Chadwick’s funeral address cited her ethical faculty and her womanhood as essential features of her ministry. The New York Liberal Christian wrote that the character of her ministry had made it quietly manifest that women could fulfill this role. In fact, the Society in Brooklyn, Connecticut, was determined to seek another woman as minister, and ordained Mrs. Caroline R. James in 1878.

In her writing and public speaking Celia Burleigh often employed her characteristic good humor to address a host of subjects from the progressive to the mundane. Such topics as legal rights and domestic abuse she approached with great seriousness, and remarks made at her funeral suggest that her reformist fervor may have been shaped by painful personal experiences prior to her third marriage. If Burleigh’s relationships with men had perhaps not always been gentle, she nonetheless regarded this human relation as of central importance: “Unitarian as I am, I am yet a devout believer in a trinity, a trinity consisting of God, woman and man, and that the cooperation of these three is essential to the salvation of the race. I believe in love as the one vital force of the world, and that by means of love, acting through the souls of men and women, the world is to be saved.”


Burleigh Correspondence is scattered, including individual letters at the John Hay Library, Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Records, including the Ministerial Journal, of the First Congregational Church, Brooklyn, Connecticut are at Connecticut State Library, in Hartford. There are articles and summaries of addresses by Celia Burleigh in the New York Tribune, The Revolution, Woman’s Journal (she was a regular correspondent, 1870-72), and The Christian Register. Some of Burleigh’s theological views and her understanding of women’s issues are presented in SOROSIS: Fourth Anniversary, at Delmonico’s: March 18th, 1872 (1872). Celia Burleigh’s new edition of The Poems of William Henry Burleigh (1871) contains her principal public statement on the life of her husband—and by extension her own. Her published song lyrics, written under the name Celia M. Barr, were “Do not forget” (1855), music by Costa, and “Remembrance of thee” (1855), music by Francis H. Brown.

There are biographical entries on Burleigh in Phebe A. Hanaford, Women of the Century (1877); Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1887), edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske; Clara Cook Helvie, “Unitarian Women Ministers,” unpublished paper (1928), UUA Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Catherine F. Hitchings, Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers (1975, 2nd edition 1985). The Hitchings entry is a good introduction to Burleigh, but contains a number of errors. There are obituaries in the (New York) Liberal Christian (July 31, 1875), the New York Times (July 28, 1875), and the New York Tribune (July 28, 1875). John White Chadwick’s funeral address, “Celia Burleigh,” is printed in the Christian Register (August 7, 1875). There are entries on William Henry Burleigh in the Dictionary of American Biography (1929) and American National Biography (1999).

The best record of Celia Burleigh’s reform activities is History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 2: 1861-1876 (1882, reprinted 1985), edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Other relevant studies of the people, movements, and events in Burleigh’s life and work include Karen J. Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redifined, 1868-1914 (1980); Jane Cunningham Croly, Sorosis: Its Origins and History (1886); Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (1978); John Lord, The Life of Emma Willard (1873); Alma Lutz, Emma Willard: Pioneer Educator of American Women (1964); Theodora Penny Martin, The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women’s Study Clubs, 1860-1910 (1987); and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Ann D. Gordon, editor, Volume 2 (2000).

Article by Dennis Landis
Posted November 10, 2001