Hero of the Titanic - John Harper

There are many stories of the night when the Titanic sank. Many are at best anecdotal and some pure speculation or fiction. One story that seems to be seldom told in the secular world is that of the Christian Pastor from Glasgow, John Harper. The recommended reads section of this website includes a book specifically about this brave man. (THE TITANIC'S LAST HERO by Moody Adams). Here is a brief summary of the events surrounding the last hours of John Harper that recently appeared in the magazine of a church in Leicester.

“One hundred years ago on 10th April 1912 RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage. This ship, built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, had been heralded as the safest ship ever built. The White Star Line even went as far as to say that the Titanic was unsinkable. The Titanic certainly was the largest luxury liner on the open seas at that time and the wealthy passengers experiencing the first class accommodation were indeed expecting to enjoy luxurious facilities on their crossing to New York.

One of the second class passengers was a Baptist pastor called John Harper. Born in 1872 in Renfrewshire, he was brought up in a Christian home and when he was nearly fourteen he realised his need of the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour. He repented of his sins and trusted in the Lord through the words of John 3:16 ‘ For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life’. At the age of eighteen he felt compelled to preach in in the open air and a few years later he was invited to work full time with the Pioneer Mission in Govan, one of Glasgow’s industrial suburbs.

Eighteen months later he moved to Gordon Halls in Paisley Road where a new work was begun in September 1897 with twenty five members. By 1910 the membership was nearly five hundred. John Harper then moved to work in Walworth Road, London. His ministry there was also blessed. He had already been to America that winter to preach at a series of revival meetings in the Moody Church, Chicago and, although he had only returned home in January, he had been invited to go again. This time he was travelling with his young daughter, six year old Annie and his grown up niece Miss Jessie Leitch.

The Titanic set out across the North Atlantic with about 2,200 passengers and crew on board. John Harper made use of his time during the voyage to speak to all he could about their need of a Saviour. On the last day before disaster struck he attended Sunday morning service. Later, when Annie and Jessie went to look for Mr Harper about six o’clock to go to dinner, they found him seeking to lead a young Englishman to Christ. After dinner when they were back in their compartment Mr. Harper read from the Bible and prayed with his daughter and niece and then left them. At 11.40pm that same evening, April 14th, Titanic struck an iceberg. Some passengers saw large pieces of ice go past their portholes and others up on deck saw the huge shape and heard the ominous sound of it tearing at the hull, but there were many others who were unaware of any danger.

When John Harper knew of the disaster he went down to Annie and Jessie’s room to tell them what had happened and returned a little later when the order to put on life belts had been given. He carried his daughter to the upper deck where she and Jessie were put into lifeboat number 11. John Harper was heard to shout “Women, children and the unsaved to the lifeboats!” He knew he was saved by the grace of God but was concerned for those who had never put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

At 2.20am on April 15th just two hours forty minutes after hitting the iceberg, the Titanic sank. 711 people survived, rescued by the Cunard liner Carpathia, but more than 1,500 lost their lives. John Harper, like many others, did not have a place in a lifeboat. (Titanic had only sailed with 20 lifeboats instead of the 38 it really needed.) Some who survived reported that Harper preached the gospel to the end, first aboard the sinking ship and then in the freezing water before dying in it himself.

Four years after the tragedy, at a meeting in Canada, a young Scottish man told of how, when he was floating in the water, John Harper had asked him if he was saved and he replied “No, I am not”. Harper exhorted him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!” Harper floated away from him but a little later the current brought him back to the young man and Harper asked him, “Are you saved now?”

“No, I cannot honestly say that I am.” Again Harper repeated the words “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” It was not until Harper had disappeared under the water that the young man believed, and thereby became John Harper’s last convert”.