John Harper: An Unknown Hero of the Titanic
In 1872 John Harper was born to a Christian family in Houston, Renfrewshire, Scotland. At the age of thirteen John was converted through God’s grace. As a young man he worked in the mill by day but spent all his free time preaching in his village, pleading with all who would listen to come to the Lord. In his early twenties he was brought to London to work with Baptist Pioneer Mission. Later he established Paisley Road Baptist Church in London – a church that started with twenty-five but through his ministry grew to five hundred.
John married, but after a few years was widowed and left with a young daughter named Nana. It was in the April of 1912 that John, along with six-year-old Nana and his cousin Jessie Leitch, boarded the Titanic to sail to America. He had been asked to preach for three months at a large church in Chicago.
The last day on the Titanic found the three family members having morning prayers and later attending the Sunday morning church service. In the evening, when Miss Leitch and Nana went to find John, he was engaged in urging a young Englishman to place his faith in Jesus Christ. Before going to bed, as John and his cousin stood on the deck admiring the sunset, he commented, ‘It will be beautiful in the morning!’
At 11:40 PM on 14 April, 1912, that great ship which had been described as ‘virtually unsinkable’ struck a giant iceberg. The side of the Titanic was ripped opened and water flowed into a number of watertight compartments. Learning of the danger, John hurried to put Nana and Miss Leitch into the eleventh lifeboat that had been lowered. Leaving his family, he rushed back to the frightened people who remained on the ship.
As the water began filling the Titanic, John shouted for ‘the women, the children and the unsaved’ to be put into the remaining lifeboats. Eighteen of the ship’s twenty lifeboats had been lowered, but these were only enough to hold half the passengers on board. John was among the1528 passengers left on the sinking ship who were thrown into the icy waters or forced to jump to save themselves.
Three times before, John had escaped death by drowning. At age two he had fallen into a well and was saved by his mother. He was swept out to sea when in his twenties, but a change in the current brought him back to the shore. At thirty-two he was in the middle of the Mediterranean in a leaking ship.
For over an hour John swam urgently from one to another of those who were dying of hypothermia to bring the gospel to them. One young man was clinging to some debris from the ship, and John asked him if he was saved. The man replied, ‘No.’ As the man drifted away John shouted to him, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’ A few minutes later the current brought the two men together and once again John urged him to trust in Christ for salvation. Then and there the man believed; but John, aged 39, who had given his lifejacket to another man, slipped under the water never to be seen again. At 2:20 AM on 15 April, the Titanic broke apart and sank deep into the ocean.
Only a half dozen people survived those icy waters of the Atlantic. Among them was a young Scotsman who, four years later at a meeting in Hamilton, Canada, testified that he was the last person with whom John had shared the gospel.
For almost a hundred years, much has been written about the Titanic. It has been found in the icy depths. Museums have been established to show its salvaged contents. But it is by Christians who hear his story, and certainly in heaven, that the bravery and witness of John Harper will be remembered and celebrated.