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John Harper - Hero of the Titanic

John Harper

by Dennis Pollock

The sinking of the Titanic has inspired countless movies and books. It seems our world never tires of the story, and every new generation want to see or hear a retelling of it.There is however, a true story that far outshines the screenplay both in dramatics and in spiritual substance. It is the story of the Scottish preacher, John Harper.

John Harper lived a relatively short time on this earth; he was thirty-nine years old on April 14, 1912, the day the mighty Titanic was proven to be sinkable after all. Raised by godly parents, he began learning the truths of Scripture as soon as he was able to comprehend. When he was fourteen he received Jesus as his personal Savior, and never experienced that rebellious teenage stage that troubles so many. His next four years were unremarkable. He attended church regularly and quietly grew to manhood.

It was when John reached his eighteenth year that a second remarkable change occurred in his life. In the year 1890 John had an experience with the Holy Spirit that seemed to equip him for a powerful ministry to come. An enrapturing and overwhelming vision was given to him, in which he saw and felt God’s purpose in the Cross of Christ. Though he had known the doctrine of the cross and resurrection since a youth, somehow his heart was pierced with the reality of God’s love for a sinful world, and the necessity of his preaching the good news of salvation to all men. He came away from that vision as a man whose lips had been touched by God’s holy fire, and whose divine commission to preach was never to be questioned.

In his early days he sought no pulpit. It was enough to proclaim Christ on the streets. An empty street corner was, to John, an invitation to preach to all passersby the glorious riches of God in Christ Jesus. After several years of such street preaching, several Baptist leaders began to know and appreciate his white hot zeal for the Lord. He was made a Baptist Missions preacher, which eventually led to a pastoral charge. Starting with 25 members, the church quickly began to grow and prosper under his evangelistic zeal and compassionate heart. When, after thirteen years of ministry there, he resigned to take a pastorate in London, the church’s seating capacity of 900 was quite incapable of holding all those who desired to bid their beloved pastor goodbye.

Man of Prayer

One of the keys to John Harper’s effectiveness as a minister was his prayer life. God had given John a heart for humanity, and this loving heart was strongly and continually exercised in prayer. Listen to these tributes to his incredible passion in prayer:

  1. “I have been with my dear brother in prayer, again and again, when his whole frame shook like an aspen leaf, so earnest was he in his pleadings with God for a perishing world. He often wept in prayer ... Little wonder hard hearts were broken and stubborn wills subdued under his ministry.” (George Harper, John’s brother)
  2. “The passion of his life was soul-winning. It was no unusual thing for him never to go to bed on a Saturday night, pleading for souls, and crying for Divine Power to enable him to preach for the glory of God.” (Pastor John Dick, successor to John Harper at the Paisley Road Baptist Church in Glasgow)
  3. “I was often there during 1905, when the news of the Welsh Revival spread. I did not go to Wales, but often saw scenes in Paisley Road Church similar to what we heard were going on there. The crowds were so great it was difficult to get in ...Then, before any one could speak ten minutes, souls were crying out for mercy under the mighty power of God ... It was the Holy Spirit convicting of sin. One was forced to ask often, ‘What is the secret of this perennial blessing in Paisley Road?’ But when in touch with the Pastor in his vestry or in his home, the secret was soon found out.”  (Pastor Malcolm Ferguson)

Perhaps the greatest meetings of John Harper’s shortened life were held at the great Moody Church in Chicago. He had been noticed as one of Europe’s finest preachers and been invited to do a short series of meetings at that large church made famous by the great revivalist D.L. Moody. So anointed and effective was his preaching that the meetings were soon extended. By the time he was done he had preached for three straight months there. The Christian magazine, Life of Faith, referred to these meetings thus: “His services were attended with such rich blessing that the visit lengthened into three months, the Moody Church passing through one of the most wonderful revivals in its history.”

Ironically, it was these meetings that led to Harper’s untimely death. So greatly was he loved by the people of Chicago that he had hardly returned when he was invited for a second visit to the Moody Church. They wanted him for three more months. Harper loved revival too much to turn down the offer. Originally he planned to sail on the Lusitania, but, as providence would have it, the decision was made to delay a week and sail on the new ship called Titanic.

God’s Minister To The Perishing


While there were no video cameras to record the last hours of the great ship, no tape recorders or cell phones to give us an electronic account of that historic night, we can be thankful for the details supplied by the 700 survivors. Before the accident John Harper was seen on the deck of the ship, leaning against a rail that fateful evening, sharing Christ with one of the passengers. Whether that man surrendered to Christ, only eternity will tell.

Once the warnings began to ring out, Harper wasted no time in getting his daughter, Nana, to an upper deck captain with instructions to get her in a lifeboat. She was indeed one of the survivors, and returned to Scotland where she grew up, married a minister, and lived a long and useful life of service to the God of her father.

From that point on John began his “ministry” to the doomed passengers of the Titanic. He was heard to urge the women, children, and unsaved to go to the lifeboats. Feeling it a waste for believers who already possessed the gift of eternal life to take up precious space on the crowded lifeboats, he never gave thought to trying to find himself a place on them.

His unselfish behavior contrasted sharply with many of the panicking passengers, rich and poor. An American banker managed to get a pet dog onto one of the boats. Colonel John Jacob Astor had to be stopped when he attempted to get on one of the boats ahead of the women. One man disguised himself as a woman in his desperate quest for survival.

Not only did John Harper make no attempt to get into the lifeboats, he even gave away his own life jacket to another man. When the mammoth ship slid quietly into the cold ocean waters, Harper’s ministry did not cease. Though without a life jacket, and thrashing about in the freezing waters, he continued to urge men and women to come to Christ. The survivors nearly all reported the terrible roar that consisted of the combined screams of the perishing, but John had more important things to do than scream. Even as he struggled in the cruel freezing waters of the Atlantic, he continued calling men and women to Jesus Christ.

The Last Convert

A year or more after the sinking of the Titanic, a young man testified of how he had met the passionate preacher in the waters. As people were screaming and dying, he saw John Harper drifting near him. Harper cried out, “Man, are you saved?” The young man knew he was in no condition to meet his Maker, and answered sadly, “No.” Harper immediately replied with Scripture: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

After that they were separated, and Harper disappeared into the darkness. But as God’s mercy would have it, within a short time they came within each other’s sight once again. Again Harper asked the question that he had asked in various forms countless times throughout his years of service to His Lord: “Are you saved?” Once again the answer was given in the negative. Again Harper cried out, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

John Harper succumbed to the freezing waters shortly after that. As best as anyone can tell, those were his last words. The young man, however, floating on a spar of the ship, was eventually picked up by one of the lifeboats and rescued by the Carpathia. He testified later: “There, two miles above the ocean floor, I did believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for my salvation. I was John Harper’s last convert.”

The evening before the sinking of the Titanic someone had heard John Harper remark, “It will be beautiful in the morning.” The beauty he saw that morning far exceeded what he had expected. Far more than a pretty sunrise or blue skies or fair winds, John awoke that morning to see the glorious face of His Savior. “For to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

The question may be asked why God would allow such a choice servant as Harper to be on that doomed ship, especially considering that his first plans involved taking a different ship a week earlier. Perhaps John Paton, John Harper’s friend put it best:

Some of us can well imagine him in these last awful minutes on board the doomed Titanic, standing amidst a group of stricken, repentant souls pointing them to the Savior he had loved and served so well, and helping them to seize their eleventh-hour opportunity. God has not many servants whom He could trust with such a service, and that, to me at least, is the explanation of our brother being on board the Titanic instead of on the Lusitania as he had at one time planned.

How differently God looks at things than we do! Perhaps John’s presence on the Titanic was not a tragedy but an honor. God, in His great love and compassion for all people, was determined to have a faithful witness of Christ to the lost and perishing in those last hours, and chose one of His choicest servants, John Harper for the task.

Back to the Present

Many years have come and gone since John Harper gave his life testifying of the Savior. All the survivors of the Titanic have died; most had much more ordinary deaths such as heart attacks, cancer, organ failure and the like. But they did die! Though we may take comfort in the fact that we probably won’t die in a terrible shipwreck, the point is that we will die (except for those believers who remain until the coming of Jesus for His church).

How you die is not nearly as important as the spiritual state your soul is in when you die. When the Titanic began her voyage there were three classes of passengers: first, second, and third class. But when she came to her abrupt end, history records only two kinds of passengers: those who perished and those who were saved. Even so, God’s word divides all humanity neatly into only two classes. God cares not whether we are white or black, male or female, simple or brilliant ... In His view there are but those who are saved and those who are lost.

Jesus took our sins upon Himself at the cross and then rose again the third day. This simple truth is the dividing line for all humanity. The Scriptures put it this way, “For He (God) has made Him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior? Do you know that your sins are forgiven? He offers you eternal life. While there is still time, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).


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