When we hear the word “Titanic,” naturally our thoughts turn to the big screen film. A few of us will associate names with it such as Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, and Charles Lightoller. But there is another man worthy of remembrance.
His name was John Harper, a Scottish minister born on May 29th, 1872. At age thirteen, on the last Sunday of March, 1886, he accepted Jesus Christ as Lord. He began to preach four years later by walking the streets of his village and pouring out his soul, pleading for men to be reconciled to God. As his life unfolded, it became apparent that he lived mind, body, and soul for the ministry. When asked by various denominations what his doctrine consisted of, he replied boldly, “The Word of God!”
In September 1896, Harper started his own church in England. In the next several years, he married and was widowed but left with a daughter, Nina. In 1911, Harper led a series of revival meetings in West Chicago at the Moody Church, and his success resulted in his being invited back. With Nina and her aunt Jessie Leitch in tow, Reverend Harper boarded the RMS Titanic en route to Chicago.
Reverned Harper nearly drowned several times in his lifetime. When he was two and a half, he fell into a well. At the age of twenty-six, he was swept out to sea by a current and nearly died; at thirty-two he faced death on a leaking ship in the Mediterranean. But past experiences were nothing in comparison to what he was to face next.
On April 14th, 1912 Titanic sailed unknowingly toward disaster. She had faced a series of incidents since leaving Southampton, from a near collision with the small ship New York to a coal fire that ranged in Bunker 6 for two days after departure. On board were the world’s most elite passengers, from President Taft’s military aid to Colonial and Lady Duff Gordon, Benjamin Guggenheim, and the Countess of Rothes.
It was a bitterly cold night, and Titanic had received a series of ice warnings from other passing liners in the area, but she remained on course. Harper remarked at sunset, “It will be beautiful in the morning…” little knowing it would be the last stretch of daylight he would ever see. At 11:40pm, an iceberg scraped the ship’s starboard side, showering the decks with ice and tearing open five watertight compartments. Perhaps not completely aware of the danger, once the lifeboats began to load Reverend Harper immediately took his daughter to #11 and watched with tear-filled eyes as she rowed out of his life forever.
As the water began to creep onto the forward decks, Harper was heard shouting, “Let the women, children, and unsaved into the lifeboats!” He abandoned Titanic as she foundered, diving into the icy sea, and swam frantically to the struggling people in the water, appealing for them to repent before hypothermia claimed his life. One man climbed up onto a piece of debris. Harper asked him between breaths, “Are you saved?” The young man replied that he wasn’t. Harper attempted to lead him to Christ, only to have the young man, cold and tired, reply no. Harper then removed his own life jacket and threw it to the man. “Here, then,” he said, “you need this more than I do.”
Swimming away into the night, Harper spoke with others who were slowly freezing to death in the frigid waters, but then again returned and pleaded with the boy to accept Christ. The last words spoken by this courageous minister, as the young man watched him sink beneath the black waves, were “Believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” The young man turned his life over to God and was rescued that night in more ways than one. Four years later, at a survivor’s meeting, he stood up and recounted in tears how Reverend John Harper had changed his life.
May our love for one another be as John Harper’s, may we be as devout in the ministry as he, and when we think of Titanic, may we remember the man who went to his destiny with no regrets. Indeed, Reverend Harper was the Titanic’s Last Hero.