By Doug Schlegel
One-hundred years ago, the Titanic sailed out of Southampton Harbor and into the mists of history. There are many stories of those who perished when she sank, but perhaps none so profoundly moving as the one we share here.
In the fall of 1911, the energetic preacher had been invited to make a short visit and preach a series of revival sermons at Moody Church in Chicago. The short visit was so successful that it became a three-month stay, and he was invited to return the next year to continue to preach the gospel at Moody.
There is nothing particularly unusual about this, except that Rev. John Harper never arrived for his second visit. This failure to appear was not due to a lack of desire, but rather because the mission field that the Lord of the harvest had ordained for Rev. Harper was much different than he, or anyone else, would have expected. There were many unexpected events that shaped Rev. Harper’s life, and the first event occurred when he was a teen.
John Harper was born to devout Christian parents on May 29, 1872, in Renfrewshire, Scotland. At the age of 13, he professed faith in Christ. Even from an early age, he was devoted to the Scriptures and his zeal for souls was so intense, that by the age of 17 he was preaching on the street corners of his hometown while he supported himself by working in a local mill. After laboring in street preaching for five or six years, he was heard of by Rev. E.A. Carter of Baptist Pioneer Mission in London.
Rev. Carter placed him in full-time work in Govan, Scotland. This unexpected turn of events led to him becoming the first pastor of Paisley Road Baptist Church in Glasgow in 1897. This was a small church with 25 members, but over the next 13 years, the membership grew to more than 500. It was during his tenure at Paisley Road that he married. His wife bore a daughter and she died soon thereafter. This unexpected and sorrowful event is no doubt one of the reasons why his daughter, Annie Jessie, accompanied him on his second trip to Chicago.
By the time of his second trip to Chicago, he had taken up the work in London at Walworth Baptist Church. The Lord was pleased to continue to bless his labors in London and the church grew to the extent that the congregation exceeded the 900-person capacity of the building. Initially, Rev. Harper considered booking passage on the RMS Lusitania, but after that cruise was canceled, he decided to book second-class passage on the next fast ship. On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic left Southampton, England, with Rev. Harper, his 6-year-old daughter and her nanny (his niece, Jessie Wills Leitch) on board.
During the course of Rev. Harper’s life, he had already experienced peril at sea and the danger of drowning. When he was 2-and-a-half-years old, he almost drowned when he fell into a well but he was resuscitated by his mother. At the age of 26, he was swept out to sea and barely survived, and at 32 he faced death on a leaking ship in the Mediterranean. Now, in the North Atlantic aboard the soon-to-be-doomed vessel, Rev. Harper’s ministry and field of labor would be thrust upon him in the last of the unexpected events.
On the evening of April 14, Rev. Harper was standing on the deck of the Titanic admiring the sunset with his niece. Looking out over the calm waters, he remarked, “It will be beautiful in the morning.” But at 11:40 that night, Rev. Harper was awakened by the sound of the iceberg tearing a gash into the starboard side of the ship. He awoke his daughter, wrapped her in a blanket and, accompanied by his niece, he carried her to the second-class promenade. When it became obvious that the wounded ship would sink, with tears in his eyes he kissed his daughter, handed her to a crewman who put her in lifeboat 11, and told her that they would see each other again. As Annie and Jessie entered the lifeboat and were lowered to safety, Rev. Harper turned around and faced his new mission field: the mass of humanity that had only a few moments to live.
As the Titanic creaked, rumbled, and shuddered, Rev. Harper ran about the decks crying out, “Women, children and unsaved into the lifeboats!” Shortly after, the ship broke in two and those who were on the decks were thrown into the frigid waters. There were now more than 1,500 souls fighting for survival in the water, but Rev. Harper had other more pressing concerns. It was at this time that his zeal for souls, his compassion and his absolute trust in his Savior met together in a final burst of evangelistic energy. Witnesses report that Rev. Harper spent his final moments frantically swimming from person to person inquiring about the condition of their souls and proclaiming the gospel truth to the unsaved, especially using Acts 16:31. One encounter is illustrative of the labors of Rev. Harper.
Rev. Harper swam up to a man who was clinging to a piece of debris and asked him, “Are you saved?” The man answered that he was not. Upon hearing this, Rev. Harper tried to lead the man to Christ, but the man refused. Rev. Harper removed his life vest and gave it to the man and said to him, “Here then, you need this more than I do … ” He swam off to evangelize others. A short while later, Rev. Harper returned to the man and he again tried to lead him to Christ. After leading this man to Christ, Rev. Harper tried to swim to others, but by this time he had begun to succumb to hypothermia. As Rev. Harper began to sink beneath the water, his final words were from Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” We know this because this last man, who was converted under the ministry of Rev. Harper, later testified to this himself. He was one of only six survivors who were plucked from the freezing waters. He said, “Then and there, with two miles of water beneath me, in my desperation I cried to Christ to save me. … I am the last convert of John Harper.”
The evening before his death, Rev. Harper said that it would be a beautiful morning. But due to an unexpected event, it was – for those who were converted in the final moments of their lives and for the zealous pastor – a glorious morning, indeed. The frigid waters of the North Atlantic became the doorway to a glorious and eternal day in the warmth of the presence of Christ.