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Jane Simpson Bleakley: Lone Latter-day Saint in Ceylon

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 16, 2012

Jane Simpson (1886-1985) – she went by “Jeannie” – grew up in the town of Darwen, Lancashire, England. An educated woman, she was certainly familiar with the large public library there financed by Andrew Carnegie, the Scotsman-turned American/steelworker bazillionaire-turned philanthropist; it opened in Darwen about a year before Jeannie’s 1910 marriage to James Bleakley (1883-1959), another native of Darwen. James was also well educated, and won an appointment administering the schools, and teaching math and physics, on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), off the southern tip of India. The couple moved to Colombo, Ceylon early in their marriage, with their infant son John (b. 1912); three other children – Robert (b. 1914), Joyce (b. 1919), and Deryk (b. 1923) – were born to them there.

When John and Robert were in their early teens, they were sent back to Manchester, not far from Darwen, for an English education. Jeannie joined them there in 1926 to check on their welfare and to enjoy an extended holiday with old friends and family. One of those old friends, a woman named Marion Spence Rothwell (1882- ), was at the time landlady for two Mormon missionaries. Both women became interested in the Church, and, perhaps with the encouragement of each other, they were both baptized, Marion on August 8 and Jeannie on November 5, 1926. Marion became “an ardent Church worker” in Manchester, while Jeannie soon returned to Ceylon, the only known member of the Church in that place. A testimony borne in a letter soon after she returned says,

I am appreciative of the chances I have had of hearing the teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Although it seemed almost impossible to me at first, too good to be true, I remember that I knew inwardly that it was true. After opportunities of intimacy and conversation with zealous workers, I was obliged to accept the Gospel and obey its teachings. Latter-day Saint literature has filled me with a love for Jesus Christ and with understanding of His willing sacrifice. Before, I did not realize how His crucifixion alone could benefit mankind, when so many others suffered a similar death at that period.

Early in May, 1927, an unflattering article concerning Mormonism appeared in one of the English newspapers, and was soon picked up and reprinted by many more, both in Great Britain and abroad, including the Ceylon Times. I think, but do not know for certain, that this article is one I have seen in both British and Australian newspapers, announcing the imminent invasion of Europe by a vastly exaggerated number of Mormon missionaries (a number many times the total number of missionaries then serving worldwide), along with distorted or entirely false details of missionary goals, including the intent to spirit young girls to Utah where they would be absorbed into Mormon harems. Whether it was this specific article or another generally like it, Jeannie was aghast at finding it in the pages of the most prominent English-language newspaper on Ceylon, just as she was trying to share the gospel with her family and with “professors, lecturers, astronomers, and other men and women of rank and station” among Ceylon’s British inhabitants.

Soon after the article’s publication, Jeannie received a new issue of the Millennial Star with information that clearly refuted the charges of that article. She sent her copy of the Star to the editor of the Ceylon Times, accompanied by a letter of her own briefly explaining some of the tenets of Mormonism and the goals of missionary work … and wonder of wonders, the editor of the Times published Jeannie’s letter in full, along with extracts from the Star addressing the current controversy. Jeannie’s letter is almost certainly the first material ever published on Ceylon concerning Mormonism from the point of view of a Church member.

Jeannie did not have an easy time convincing her own family of the truth of the Gospel. Her oldest son John, in England, was baptized in 1932; her daughter Joyce, who returned to England in 1937 to attend university (she was a gifted pianist and dancer), was baptized in 1939. Jeannie’s husband and two younger sons did not become members.

World War II hit the family especially hard. Jeannie and her family moved back to England. Son John served as a medical doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps; following the war, he settled in Bangor, Northern Ireland, and raised a family there. Jeannie’s other two sons did not make it through the war: Robert died in Malaysia in 1942; Deryk died in South Africa in 1943. Joyce met an American serviceman in the London mission home during the war and married him, then moved to his hometown, Logan, Utah, after the war. In 1959, Jeannie’s husband James was drowned in an accident at sea west of the Bay of Biscay; his body was never recovered. Jeannie moved to Ireland to live near her son John.

In 1961, Jeannie and John went to the London Temple and received their own endowments. They did proxy work for Jeannie’s husband and her two deceased sons, and were sealed together as a family.

Jeannie, and her children John and Joyce, remained stalwart members of the Church throughout their lives. Jeannie died at Bangor in 1985, at age 99. John died there in 1992. Joyce died in Logan in 2009.

LDS missionaries touched lightly at Ceylon in 1853; the Church’s next official contacts on that island did not occur until the 1970s. Midway in that long period of official absence, Jane (Jeannie) Simpson Bleakley lived and taught the gospel, a lone member of the Church on an island filled with many millions of people.

Note: If any university-connected readers have access to the “South Asian Microform Project and Center for Research Libraries,” you could make an easy contribution to international Mormon history by requesting the Ceylon Times, which published Sister Bleakley’s letter and related materials. That’s the only source I’ve been able to locate for this newspaper, so far. Contact me – AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com – for details.



17 Comments »

  1. I’m putting a general call out to my circle of university researchers and archivists, Ardis. If I hear anything back I’ll email you for more details. I have a few colleagues who specialize in South Asian literature and history…

    Comment by Mina — May 16, 2012 @ 7:12 am

  2. Thank you, Mina. You can see why I’d like to have her published letter …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2012 @ 7:20 am

  3. Thanks, Ardis. I hope you can track down her letter to the newspaper.

    Comment by Amira — May 16, 2012 @ 8:04 am

  4. In 1934, a young missionary writing for the Millennial Star (somebody named, um, Gordon B. Hinckley) wrote a profile of Jeannie’s son John as a “highlight in local leadership.” After describing John’s outstanding academic and physical achievements, Elder Hinckley said, “There is nothing blustery about his style, nothing officious about his manner. He is a quiet, mild-mannered young fellow with one predominant physical characteristic — a smile, heartening and infectious.” He quoted John’s message to the M Men of the Church:

    “We can be of the utmost service to others and to ourselves only if we are fit, morally, mentally and physically — the end to which the M Men organization is designed. I commend this great group to all young men, regardless of their religious affiliations, as the young man’s ideal: self-government; character formation; development morally, physically, and intellectually; recreation; the study of the recognized arts; and service. The true sportsman has but one rule — ‘Play the game.'”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 16, 2012 @ 8:21 am

  5. Wow. Her life sounds like a Nevil Shute novel. (Not On The Beach, though!) Thanks for sharing the story.

    Comment by Amy T — May 16, 2012 @ 8:28 am

  6. Shades of A Town Like Alice, perhaps?

    I know someone who served a mission in Ireland in the late 1960s. I’ll have to see if he ever served in Bangor, and whether he has any memories of the Bleakley family.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 16, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  7. Oh, and as one gets older, everything starts to look a bit like On The Beach. Except for the looking (or sounding) like Gregory Peck part.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 16, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  8. It would have been a major effort to get missionaries anywhere near Ceylon during this period. I suspect that the nearest FT missionaries were in Australia or South Africa. (In either case, it’s a 4,000 mile trip one way–likely by boat.) I suppose the nearest they came to Church leadership in Ceylon was when Elders McKay and Cannon crossed the Indian Ocean in 1921 on the leg from Java to Jerusalem.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 16, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  9. The Bleakley family were still members of the Church in Belfast in the 70s and 80s, I believe.

    Comment by Alison — May 16, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

  10. I believe there are several descendants of Sis. Bleakley still active in the church in the UK, including a member of a Stake Presidency.

    Comment by Jonathan M. — May 17, 2012 @ 6:24 am

  11. I served in Bangor on my mission in Ireland dec. 69-71 and had the good fortune to be invited to the bleakly home for christmas dinner and to open gifts the family gave to myself and my companion christmas 1970. Grandma Bleakley was still playing the piano on sundays for the branch and was a delight to all. The Bleakley home was quit an impressive site for a young man from Orem Ut. as it was the closest thing to a mansion I had ever seen, with suits of armor in the great hallway and a commanding stairway with a glass dome etc. What a great family!

    Comment by harrison h. horn — October 21, 2012 @ 12:38 am

  12. John Bleakley is my Grandfather. He died in 1992, just a few years after his mother, Jeannie. We held a family reunion for John’s descendants this Summer. There were 100+ in attendance.

    Jennie used to say “I never converted anybody”, but 30 or so of her direct descendants have served missions.

    Comment by Jonathan Bleakley — February 2, 2014 @ 4:53 am

  13. James didn’t drown at sea. He died on the voyage back from America to visit Joyce, having run out of medication. He was buried at sea as there was nowhere on the ship where they could keep the body. He had retired from his job in Ceylon and both Jeannie and James were intending to settle in Bangor following the visit to Utah and had a house built to do so, however James’ death meant that the house was never used by them and Jeannie moved in to Nancy’s (John’s wife) family home, Seacourt. She became known to all as Dandan, to distinguish her from the other granny.

    Comment by Jonathan Bleakley — February 2, 2014 @ 5:04 am

  14. Jonathan, thank you for both of your notes, including the correction.

    And what a coincidence! Earlier this week, after a great deal of hunting, I finally have Jeannie’s 1927 letter to the editor of the Ceylon Times. I’ll write to you about that a little later today when I’m on something other than a mobile device.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2014 @ 6:00 am

  15. By any chance, was that with Jay Buurp? He is the one who put me on to your blog. I served in his ward when he was a bishop.

    Comment by Jonathan Bleakley — February 2, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

  16. No, Jay wasn’t involved (although he’s turned up many a lost treasure); this came through reading through several borrowed reels of microfilm.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

  17. this came through reading through several borrowed reels of microfilm.

    and for knowing how to spot things that are important while you are going through the microfilms.

    Comment by Maurine — February 5, 2014 @ 12:52 am

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