Today is the anniversary – 107th – of the awful tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. On a cold, cold night, this ‘unsinkable’ ship struck and iceberg, and sank dramatically into the nearly freezing North Atlantic. Hundreds perished – from drowning, being trapped, and exposure to the cold. Many were saved – but not nearly enough, because there were not enough lifeboats and some of those that were launched were not filled to capacity. I’m sure many readers of this blog will have seen the well known film, starring Leonardo Di’Caprio and Kate Winslett, and that gives a good overview of the tragedy and brings its devastating force home.
On this date a few years ago, my then pastor took us through Psalm 49 – and related it to this tragedy. A key part of his sermon was a retelling of the story of John Harper. Harper was a Baptist minister, and was on his way to Chicago with his daughter and niece. His story is recounted in a book – “The Titanic’s Last Hero” – which goes far beyond the scope of this limited blog post. You can find out more about him at the site of the Memorial Church which bears his name here.
As the ship began to sink for the final time, 1,528 people were in the water. Harper had handed his daughter to a crewman on a lifeboat – bidding that she be saved. Survivors who were picked out of the water told an amazing story. This Baptist minister swam – slowly, coldly, whilst freezing to death – preaching the Gospel. Knowing that many were going to perish, he used his last strength to share the Gospel with people. Apocryphal (As in I can’t verify them, but they seem very likely) quotes attributed to Harper include him exhorting that ‘women, children and the unsaved’ be put aboard the lifeboats – he was so secure in his salvation, so in love with Jesus, that even amidst this terrible tragedy his first concern was for the bigger safety, the eternal safety, of his fellow men and women.
One young man was near shock when Harper swam near him. Upon being asked if he was saved, the youth replied ‘no’. Harper tried to share the Gospel with him – but the response of the young man continued. Harper instead gave him his life-vest – saying ‘you need it more than I do’. In an eternal sense, this was a very true statement. Harper showed genuine Christian concern – for both material and spiritual wellbeing for this young man. Harper lived out, spoke out, what history seems to say is his favourite verse;
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31)
1,528 people went in to the water that night.
A very few boats turned back to search for survivors.
Six people were plucked from the water, shivering.
1 of these was that young man who had taken the life-vest from John Harper.
He survived to tell the story of this servant of Jesus. It seems – from the various accounts I have read – that the actions of John Harper increased the number of those truly saved. It certainly shocked the young man.
The story of the Titanic ends with two lists. Those known to have been saved, and those known to have died.
The pride of man – whatever error you may attribute the sinking of the Titanic to – in this tragedy is a challenging element of the story. At the end of the day, according to Jesus, that is how humanity will be. Saved, and unsaved. Or, as Jesus puts it Matthew 25:31-46, Sheep and Goats.
John Harper loved Jesus, and because he loved Jesus he loved people enough to be concerned for their salvation. Faced with a man not wishing to be saved, he chose to do what he could – giving him the life-vest – to prolong his life, that he might have a chance again to examine the claims of Jesus. John Harper was one of the great Heroes of the story of the Titanic. And he pointed to, loved, and served the greatest of all Heroes, Jesus Christ.