Celia Burleigh was the first woman ordained to the Unitarian ministry. Little is known of Burleigh’s background. She was born in Cazenovia, New York on September 18, 1826. She had a long career teaching and writing and working for woman’s suffrage. Her first marriage to Chauncy Burr ended in divorce. She lived in Syracuse for a time and taught there. She wrote articles for the Christian Register, and lectured on temperance and suffrage. Later she moved to Troy, New York and worked with Emma Willard, the educator. On September 7, 1865 she married William Henry Burleigh, a reformer and publisher who was working as harbor master for New York City at the time of the marriage. He was a native of Woodstock, Connecticut. Their marriage was later described by John White Chadwick as “co-equal of hearts and minds.” They lived in Brooklyn, New York, where Celia continued her work in journalism. In 1868 her associate Jennie June Croly was excluded from a press club dinner. In response 12 women, including Burleigh, formed Sorosis, an organization to promote deeper association between women writers and artists. Burleigh became a lecturer and fund-raiser for the group. The following year Burleigh helped organize a new organization, the Social Science Club, which was renamed in January 1870, the Brooklyn Woman’s Club, of which she was the first president. They also helped form the first woman’s business union.
In May 1869 she was named a secretary to the Equal Rights Association. During these years she was a frequent attendee at woman suffrage conventions. She became an accomplished organizer and lecturer. In July 1871 she received an invitation from J. B. Whitcomb, in Brooklyn, Connecticut to be a summer minister for August. Although she had never preached, Burleigh was intrigued that the pulpit might be the place where she could give fullest expression to herself. During her time in New York, she had been a member of the Second Unitarian Society in Brooklyn where the minister, John White Chadwick, encouraged her. The summer in Connecticut was an unqualified success, and the society invited her to remain as their regular pastor. She agreed to do so as long as she did not have to subscribe to any creed or anything more binding than the highest truth that was revealed to her each day. Her husband, who had died in March, had encouraged her to be a minister.
At her ordination on October 5, 1871, Julia Ward Howe read a letter from Henry Ward Beecher, which read in part: “There are elements of the Gospel which a woman’s nature ought to bring out far more successfully than a man can.” She had a very active first two years, preaching and engaging in other activities such as woman suffrage work, and participating in the ordination of the second woman to be ordained, Mary Hannah Graves. At Graves’ ordination Burleigh said that both men and women were needed for the ministry, and that this was not new work for women. She was also the first woman to preach at a meeting of the Channing Conference. Then she became quite ill, and tried to improve her condition with a water cure at a hospital in Danville, New York, where she remained for 18 months while serving the congregation in that town. Finally, she returned to Syracuse for a brief ministry, but became increasingly ill as a friend cared for her.
She died there on July 25, 1875, and her body was returned to Brooklyn, Connecticut for burial. Chadwick conducted a service at her old church, The First Ecclesiastical Society.