Coweta Particular Baptist Church

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. Proverbs 22:28

Pastor's Thoughts

Christian...and Faithful, The Legacy of John Harper

Posted by John Suttles on July 17, 2012 at 10:25 PM

Christian...and Faithful, The Legacy of John Harper

If you were told that you had about 2 hours, 40 minutes left to live, what would you do with your remaining time? Surely, this is not a scenario in which you would like to find yourself, and yet, for one man in 1912, this was exactly the dilemma he faced. That man’s name was John Harper.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. While stories, movies, books, and songs abound related to the fateful voyage of the Titanic, one is hard pressed to find records of explicitly Christian conduct the night of the Titanic’s sinking. Indeed, there were many acts of bravery – many acts of courage and selflessness. And these are worthy of noting. But even pagan Rome honored these virtues! Where, we might ask, are the last testaments and dying proclamations of real Christians? Where are those who glorified God and served Christ to the very end in the face of a horrible and frightening death? Where are the accounts of men or women spending their last moments to save more than just bodies – to save souls? Sadly, these are not things one hears of when hearing of the Titanic. You won’t find gospel witnesses heralded in Hollywood! All you'll find there are stories of drunken irresponsibility and fornication that is praised as love. In light of these things, John Harper’s story needs repeating.

John Harper was a Scotsman and a Baptist pastor of some renown. He was a passenger on the RMS Titanic when it struck an iceberg. But, most importantly, Harper was a Christian with a burning zeal to see lost souls come to Christ. Those who knew him universally testified of this fact. He beautifully demonstrated this love for Christ and for lost souls on the night of April 14th, 1912.

Little did Harper know, when he departed for the U.S.A. what he was to face! He had been invited to speak at the Moody Church in Chicago and was traveling along with his six year old daughter, “Nan”, and her aunt, Miss Leitch (both survived). He eagerly looked forward to being there in the coming weeks. But God intended instead that the deck of the Titanic and the frigid waters of the North Atlantic would be Harper’s last pulpit experience.

By all accounts, Harper spent his final moments energetically evangelizing the lost and comforting the believers. Almost from the moment that news was sent below, a little after 11:40 p.m., about the Titanic having been damaged by ice, Harper went to work as a dying missionary. We may never know how many lives God touched or souls He saved by the preaching of this one man as he bravely looked death in the face on that frozen night. But one moving testimony will serve to present your mind with a view of the nature of his dying service.

After hurrying about the deck of the sinking ship for some time encouraging hearers to repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, Harper took a step of great self-sacrifice. Seeing scores of people already in the frigid ocean screaming and crying, and knowing that he too would not escape death, Harper threw himself into the ocean and began swimming to those still alive to give the gospel to as many as possible before they perished. Apparently, he would swim from one to another inquiring whether they were saved. If the reply was "no", he would admonish them to look to Christ for salvation.

One person Harper encountered was a young man who later testified that he had managed to cling to a drifting piece of wreckage. Harper appeared to him, panting and freezing, and inquired about his salvation. He said he was not saved, to which Harper shouted, “Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved!” The currents took Harper away, but some time later Harper came within sight of the same young man again and shouted, “Are you saved?” Again, the young man said, “No”. Harper was again carried away.

Four years after the sinking, at a reunion of survivors in Ontario, Canada, this young man, thought to have been a steward on the ship, recounted this event and testified to those present that he had finally come to salvation in Christ and owed it to John Harper, the messenger sent by God on that horrible night.

Shortly after his last meeting with this young man in the early hours of April 15th, Harper, hopelessly exhausted in his final service to Christ, slipped into the dark waters to rest until the Lord’s coming. His body was never found. How many others were similarly touched by this dying missionary, only eternity will tell.

Harper is little remembered now. His name is not associated with all the rich and famous for which the Titanic is most known. Yet, his service to Christ is nobler than fame or fortune. Ought we not all to be so impressed with the great need of lost souls? Ought we not to respond to this one witness in the “great cloud of witnesses” before us with a renewed zeal to labor for Christ while the vanishing moments draw to an end? For they surely do! They surely are!

What will our legacy be? Will it be one of service to Christ for the cause of the Gospel –to the very end?

Luke Suttles

July 2012


(The reader is referred to The Titanic’s Last Hero by Moody Adams, originally published as John Harper: A Man of God, in 1912, for further information.)

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