When the largest ship then afloat, the Titanic, struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. April 14, 1912, in the western North Atlantic, it was carrying over 2,200 souls (the precise number is unknown), including a crew of about 890. In less than three hours, that colossus of the ocean, the pride of the White Star Line, disappeared below the waves, descending to its permanent grave some 13,000 feet below the surface. All that remained alive of its teeming humanity were something over 700 individuals (including 187 crewmen) who found refuge in the fatally too-few lifeboats.
The ship was built with all the latest advances in ship safety and luxury. It was deemed a virtually unsinkable floating palace. Passage was eagerly sought by many of the rich and famous on this, its maiden voyage. The trans-Atlantic crossing promised to be among the most rapid ever, perhaps the fastest of all. Such was the plan and the promise, but in truth, the ship was in a headlong rush to eternity for most of those aboard, though likely none had the least notion of how soon and how calamitous the end would be.
Among the passengers was a Scotsman in his late thirties, one John Harper (1872-1912), and his six-year-old daughter, Annie (her mother had died four years earlier). John would likely have attracted the notice of few. He was a preacher and pastor headed to America, Chicago more precisely, for a return engagement at the famous Moody Church, where just two months earlier he had concluded a greatly blessed three-month evangelistic campaign. The last memories any of the survivors of Titanic had of John Harper was of him, first entrusting his daughter to a crewman who placed her in one of the lifeboats (Harper also urged believers to surrender lifeboat seats to unbelievers), then on the deck of the doomed ship earnestly trying to win people to Christ. Last of all, after the sinking, he, having given away his life vest to another person, was in the cold waters, clinging to debris, calling out to fellow ill-fated passengers, asking if they knew the Lord, if they had been saved, and urging them to decide for Christ before it was too late. His final acts were entirely in character for this man whose whole purpose in life was the salvation of sinners.
Harper grew up in a small village in Scotland. He had the blessed upbringing of a devout Christian home, where the father regularly led the family in Bible reading and prayer. He responded in faith to the Gospel at age 13, and felt the call of God to the ministry in 1890. Though having no formal education beyond age 14, Harper was a very diligent student of the Scriptures, employing effectively whatever Bible study tools he could obtain. While employed at secular jobs, he spent some five years in his teens and early twenties itinerating in the villages and farms near his home. During this time, he became convinced of immersion as the Biblical mode of baptism and submitted himself for believer’s immersion. He was called to pastor what later became Paisley Street Baptist Church in Glasgow in 1893 (just barely into his twenties), where he remained for 13 years, winning hundreds to Christ and establishing a solid church. Called to Walworth Road Baptist Church, London, in 1906, he labored the last half dozen years of his life in that great metropolis.
All who knew him testified to Harper’s exemplary character, his integrity, his diligence, and conscientiousness in fulfilling his responsibilities as a Christian and a minister, but especially his burning desire to see men and women come to Christ. He was truly “fervent in prayer.” He often felt compelled to labor in intercessory prayer all night long — sometimes on Saturday night in preparation for Sunday services. Seeking the conversion of the lost and the edification of the saved, he prayed by name for each of the people who attended his preaching. The intensity and extent of his prayers is reminiscent of those of David Brainerd in the 18th century, and even of Christ’s recorded in the Gospels. So intense were Harper’s labors that for about six months in 1905, he was compelled to set his work aside in an effort to mend his badly broken health.
At just 39, when his efficiency and effectiveness for the Gospel seemed at their peak and promising even greater things, God called John Harper to Himself. His years were relatively not many, but they were filled with much selfless labor for eternity.
Some accounts of John Harper’s life and ministry, along with testimonies from fellow ministers and some converts, and a few of his sermon outlines, are to be found in The Titanic’s Last Hero, edited by Moody Adams (1997).