Scripture: Psalm 130:1 / Acts 16:31
John Harper was born in a small Scottish town on my birthday – May 29 – of 1872. His parents were dedicated believers. They had come to Christ during the 1859 revival in Ulster. His father ran a drapery business.
When he was two-and-a-half years old, he was playing with his brother near an open well and his foot slipped. His brother screamed and their mother came running. She fished John out of the well and held him upside down while the water drained out of his mouth. They later admitted that it was a rather primitive form of resuscitation, but it worked.
At age 14, he confessed Christ as his Savior during a Sunday night worship service and was led to Christ by a counselor using John 3:16.
As a teen, he found a job in the local paper mill, but his mind was constantly drawn to God’s Word.
At age 18, he felt himself strongly called to ministry. He was at home on a Saturday afternoon in June 1890, when he had an experience with the Lord that convinced him God had a special calling on his life. The very next day, he began preaching on the street corner of his home town. For the next five or six years, he continued working in the paper mill and preaching on the street corners of towns in his area. He honed his skills with open-air preaching. He became an eager Bible student and became a powerful and greatly used preacher. He was also a great prayer warrior.
A Baptist minister heard him and persuaded him to quit his day job and devote himself full time to evangelistic work and to pastoring. John began working in a mission in an industrial suburb of Glasgow, and much of his time involved street preaching and personal evangelism. He pursued this work for 18 months, then moved in closer to the city and established a church on Paisley Road in Glasgow. He started with 25 members, and Harper stayed as pastor of the church for thirteen years. During that time the church grew from 25 members to 500. (Today it’s known as Harper Memorial Church).
In 1905, John health broke, evidently from overwork. His voice, which had been rich and resonant, failed. For several months, he gave himself over to rehabilitation and recovery, then he was eventually able to continue his ministry. During this time he married, and the happy couple started a family. They had a little girl named Anna Jessie, or Nana for short.
Mrs. Harper passed away from illness in 1906, leaving John to raise their daughter by himself, with the help of the girl’s aunt.
Despite ill health and death, these were days of revival. The Welsh revival, which had began about 1905 under the ministry of Evan Roberts, spread all around the world. John Harper was a part of that revival. He devoted whole evenings to intense prayer. He evangelizde on the street corners. Hundreds came to Christ. John’s theme song was a hymn that became popular in those days:
Buried with Christ and raised with Him too, / What is there left for me to do? / Simply to cease from struggle and strife, / Simply to walk in newness of life.
Then another curious incident happened. At age 26, John and his brother were swimming in the ocean when they were swept out to sea by a strong undertow. They both nearly drowned and only by utmost exertion made it back to shore.
Six years later, when John was 32, he took a trip to the Holy Land. His ship developed a serious leak on the Mediterranean, and for some hours it looked as though it would sink with all its passengers. They were all in great suspense. John later said of the experience: “The fear of death did not for one moment disturb me. I believe that sudden death would be sudden glory, but, there was a wee motherless girl in Glasgow, and, oh, I thought, if I Had only committed her to my dear brother George’s care before I left.”
In 1910, John left Glasgow to accept the call of a Baptist church in London, but he took time to fulfill a commitment in 1911 to hold evangelistic meetings at the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. They became the most successful meetings held at the church since Moody himself had passed away a dozen years before. As a result, the Moody Church invited John to return for another series of meetings in the spring of 1912.
He was 39 years old. He originally booked passage on the Lusitania, but he switched at the last minute to the Titanic. John and his daughter, now six years old, boarded with the little girl’s aunt. Here is the account the aunt later gave:
About midnight Mr. Harper came to our stateroom and told us the vessel had struck an iceberg. While I as dressing he went to learn further particulars, and returned to say that the order had been given to put on lifebelts. We did so, and picking little Nana up in his arms he took her up to the deck. I had to climb a vertical iron ladder, and Mr. Harper held Nana up the ladder and the man at the top lifted her to me again. There was no opportunity for farewell, in fact, even then we did not realize the danger, as we were assured again and again that the vessel could not sink, that the Olympic would be alongside at any minute, and that…the (life)boats were sufficient for all. Our boat was well manned. It was the eleventh to leave the vessel. After about half an hour, the Titanic went down. We were about a mile away, but even then I hoped and expected the Mr. Harper was in one of the other boats…
The last day we spent on the Titanic was Sunday. Mr. Harper asked me to read the chapter at our morning family prayers, and later we went to the Sunday morning service. The day was quietly and pleasantly spent, and when Nana and I went to look for Mr. Harper at about six o’clock to go to dinner we found him earnestly talking to a young Englishman, whom he was seeking to lead to Christ.
That evening before we retired we went on deck, and there was s till a glint of red in the west. I remember Mr. Harper saying, “It will be beautiful in the morning.” We went down to the stateroom, he read from the Bible and prayed, and then left us.
As the waters of the Atlantic crept up the decks of the Titanic, it was John Harper who shouted “Let the woman, children, and unsaved into the lifeboats.” He took his own lifejacket and gave it to another man. According to accounts, after the Titanic went down, John Harper was struggling in the water. A man clinging to a board floated near him. Harper cried, “Are you saved?”
The man replied, “No.” Harper shouted, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
The man drifted away. But in a few moments, the currents brought them together again. Harper shouted again, “Are you saved?” Once again the answer came back no. Harper again quoted Acts 16:31: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
With that, Harper lost his struggle in the ocean and slipped to his watery grave. The man he sought to win was rescued by the Carpathian. John Harper was evangelizing with his very last breaths.
Later in a testimony service in Hamilton, Ontario, a man confessed that he was the one floating in the water near John Harper, and as a result of that final word of witness he had put his faith in Christ. He testified that he was John Harper’s last convert.
The following Sunday, Harper’s church in London met together in a state of shock. The presiding minister stood in the pulpit and we have a record of what he said:
It is with indescribable feelings that I stand here this morning. The great calamity which has fallen upon us, in the loss of our beloved pastor, the Rev. John Harper, has plunged us into a pathless darkness from which for the moment our hearts and minds cannot find a way out.
Last Monday evening we went from the prayer meeting to our homes full of praise to God for our beloved friend. The newspapers told us he was upon an unsinkable ship, that all was safe, but alas! Man’s word is not like God’s word—immutable, unchanging, and sure… The ship was sinkable and she sank, and with her went down into the dark deep the body of him whom we loved so well. But praise God, we know he himself has gone home to be with the Lord.
We have suffered a great loss, and not only we, but the entire Church of God, a loss which cannot be replaced. There was only one John Harper, and there will never be another, no one will ever fill his place. He has gone; we are left, left. For what? To weep and allow our hands to hang down? No, surely no. But to work, to watch, to wait, to preach Christ and His crucified, and thus to save those who are crying out to us, “Save our souls.”
Nana, who was six when she was orphaned, later said that she recalled sitting on her aunt’s lap when she saw the Titanic sink. She remembered watching the lights go out and hearing the screams of the drowning. She was raised by her uncles and aunts and married a minister and dedicated her life to the Lord that her father had served.
Conclusion: The story of the Titanic grips us so much because it’s a microcosm of humanity. We’re all on board a sinking ship, and God has issued warnings of a coming judgment in His Word. How dangerous to ignore the warnings! John Phillips was a crewmember aboard the Titanic who grew impatient with warnings about icebergs from another ship the Californian. After the sixth warning, he told the Californian to shut up. As he went down with the ship, he cried “God forgive me… God forgive me…”
Following the sinking of the Titanic, the White Star office in Liverpool posted a large board with two lists. One list said: “KNOWN TO BE SAVED.” The other list said: “KNOWN TO BE LOST.” People gathered around those boards morning and evening waiting for the next name to be posted. When it comes to the safety of Christ, which list is your name on?