“John Harper’s Last Words as the Titanic Sank”
John Harper was born in Scotland in 1872 to a Christian family. When he was presented with the message of John 3:16 at the age of thirteen, he believed in Jesus and received everlasting life. When he was eighteen, he had a powerful vision of the cross of Christ. At that moment he committed his life to bringing the message of the cross to others. The very next day he began to preach in his village, urging all his hearers to be reconciled to God. He made every street corner his pulpit.
His desire to win souls to Christ was unmatched, becoming his all-consuming purpose. An evangelist friend, W.D. Dunn, recalled often seeing Harper lying on his face before God, pleading with him to “give me souls, or I die,” sobbing as if his heart would break.
At the age of thirty-two he had a near-drowning experience when he was caught on a leaky ship in the Mediterranean. He said of the experience, “The fear of death did not for one minute disturb me. I believed that sudden death would be sudden glory.”
In 1911 he spent three months preaching at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago during a revival and received an enthusiastic response. He was asked to return for three months of meetings beginning in April 1912. Originally scheduled to sail on the Lusitania, he sailed on the Titanic after a schedule change.
When he informed his church of intent to return to Chicago, a parishioner begged him not to go, saying that he had been praying and felt strongly that something ominous would happen if he went. He pleaded with Harper but to no avail. Harper felt there was a divine purpose for his trip, and Harper went ahead with his plans. The night before the ship sank, Harper was seen leading a man to Christ on the deck. Afterward, he looked to the west, and seeing a glint of red in the sunset he said, “It will be beautiful in the morning.”
The clear April night sky was filled with sparkling stars as the largest and finest steamship in the world sped through the calm waters of the icy North Atlantic. Many of the passengers had gone to bed, but some were still in the lounges, enjoying the Titanic’s many luxuries. No one was alarmed by the slight jar felt around 11:15 p.m., but many noticed when they no longer felt the vibration of the engines.
The crew of the Titanic had ignored iceberg warnings and had the ship steaming full speed ahead. Suddenly, the great vessel struck a large iceberg, which ripped the ship’s side open. Within fifteen minutes the captain realized the danger of the situation, and he had the wireless operator put out a call for assistance. Lifeboats were quickly made ready, and women and children were ordered to get to them first (Christian culture had stamped the ideas of chivalry into men, making them willing to give up their lives for women and children). There were twelve honeymooning couples aboard the ship. Though all of the new wives were saved, only one of the husbands survived.
The captain ordered the band to play to keep up the spirits of the passengers. It began playing a ragtime tune, but the musicians soon changed to playing hymns.
There were only twenty lifeboats on the huge ocean liner—barely enough for one-third of the passengers and crew. Not even all of them could be lowered. All eighty-five of the ship’s engineers continued to work to keep the ship afloat as long as possible. At the end, many people knelt together in prayer until the waters covered them.
Throughout the mournful evacuation, as loved ones were tearfully separated, the band continued to play. There is some dispute about what they played that night. Several people in the lifeboats heard “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
One of the passengers traveling on the ship was evangelist John Harper. He put his six-year-old daughter into a lifeboat and then ran through the ship warning others of the danger and talking to them about the eternal destiny of their souls. When he was finally forced to jump into the icy water, he clung to a piece of wreckage and asked another man, “Are you saved?” When the man answered “no,” Harper said to him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (quoting Acts 16:31). The man did not respond, and they lost sight of each other. Harper asked the same question again, urging the man to believe in Jesus, and received the same answer again. Harper then slipped beneath the water, never to resurface. The man did put his faith in Jesus Christ and was later rescued by a lifeboat. He testified that he was John Harper’s last convert.
When the Titanic sank early in the morning on this day in 1912, Harper was among the 1,522 people who died. The band went down with the ship. The last hymn they played was “Autumn,” which concludes with this prayer:
Hold me up in mighty waters
Keep my eyes on things above
Righteousness, divine Atonement,
Peace, and everlasting Love.
After the sinking of the ship, relatives and friends of the passengers gathered outside the White Star office in Liverpool, England. As news came in about the passengers, names were placed on one of two lists, “Known to Be Saved” or “Known to be Lost.” The voyage had begun with three classes of passengers, but now it was reduced to only two—saved or lost. John Harper’s name was placed on the list for those “Known to Be Lost,” but it was on the “Saved” list in heaven.
John Harper faced death heroically and without fear because he never lost sight of his passionate purpose in life—to win souls for Christ. Imagine those last horrifying moments aboard the Titanic. If you had been there, what do you think you would have done?
“Perfect love expels all fear…” -1 John 4:18
*Significant Events on April 15th in Church History:
1729: Johann Sebastian Bach produced his St. Matthew Passion for its first and only performance during his lifetime (unless it was also performed in 1727 as some scholars think). The piece is considered his greatest work, possibly the pinnacle of Baroque music because it fused spirituality and art. Even Nietzche praised it for having the power to convey the gospel afresh to one who had forgotten it.
1958: Dayuma, An Auca woman, was baptized. Her people had killed the missionaries who came to bring them the gospel.
1983: Corrie Ten Boom died on this day, her ninety-first. She protected Jews from the Nazis and was incarcerated in a concentration camp. After the war, she became an internationally known evangelist.
*Adapted from the April 15th entries in This Day In Christian History, edited by A Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications. And Mike and Sharon Rusten, The One Year Book of Christian History, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.