John Harper glanced at the ticket he had just purchased — No. 248727. It had cost a handsome £33 — a considerable sum for a Baptist pastor to pay in 1912.
Originally, Harper had planned to sail to New York on the Lusitania, en route to Chicago, where he was booked to preach at the Moody Church for three months. Delayed by a change in arrangements, he had decided to travel on the Titanic instead.
The largest and most luxurious liner afloat and newly launched from the Harland and Wolff Belfast shipyard, the Titanic was about to embark on her maiden voyage. ‘Not even God can sink the Titanic‘, said some jovially as they jostled for tickets.
But, for John Harper, his confidence lay not in any mighty ocean liner, however ‘unsinkable’ it might be, but in the all-powerful God he served. Certainly he had already experienced three occasions when he could easily have lost his life by drowning, but had been remarkably rescued.
Travelling with him on the Titanic was his small daughter, Annie (Nana), and his adult niece, Jessie, for John’s wife had died shortly after Annie’s birth.
Harper, a 39-year-old Irish preacher, had a single aim in life, not to rescue men and women from the perils of land or sea, but from a far more terrible disaster when all must face the judgement of God after life is over.
At that time pastor of a London church, he had already known exceptional blessing on his preaching, as his first congregation in Glasgow had risen from a mere 25 to almost 500. And, on an earlier visit to Chicago, he had also seen evidences of God’s power to transform lives.
Standing on the deck of that impressive four-funnelled vessel as she slipped gracefully out of Southampton Water, on 10 April 1912, Harper could only gasp in wonder at the magnificent décor and the luxury on every hand.
Some of society’s richest men and women swept past him on their way to their plush apartments, and, with his own second-class ticket, he could only guess at the opulence of their surroundings as they wined and dined under exotic chandeliers each night and danced through the small hours.
Yet, he grieved at the emptiness of the lives of many and at their utter complacency regarding any life beyond the grave. He thought too of the immigrants and the less fortunate crowded into steerage.
With 2,224 on board, here was mission field enough for John Harper, and he determined to take every opportunity to speak to all he could about their eternal welfare.
As the graceful liner cut her way effortlessly through the choppy Atlantic waters, sometimes reaching record speeds, Harper tried to challenge passengers and crew alike. Life is uncertain and short, he told them repeatedly. ‘Are you saved?’ Some listened; most did not.
Then at twenty minutes to midnight on 14 April, four days into the voyage, a strange sound was heard running the length of the great ship — an eerie ripping sound, like someone tearing fabric in two. Some passengers preparing for bed noticed large chunks of ice floating past their portholes.
Up and down the long corridors heads poked out of the doors. ‘What was that?’ ‘Is everything all right?’
Stewards quickly reassured any who appeared anxious. The Titanic is the safest ship afloat — practically unsinkable! So most laughed and climbed back into bed. Some continued to sip wine and dance in the elaborate ballroom, with music drowning any threatening sounds.
But others taking a late night stroll on the deck had seen the frightening shape of a gigantic iceberg looming ahead. They had watched in horror as the helmsman made a desperate attempt to turn the ship to starboard to avoid a collision.
Then came the ear-splitting crash and the slicing sound of ice across metal. Soon complacency turned to alarm as stewards knocked on every door: ‘Dress warmly; put on life jackets; report to the upper deck’.
John Harper quickly grasped the situation as he heard snatches of conversation. ‘We are taking water’, said some. ‘There is no danger’, assured others.
Lifting his sleeping child Annie and rousing Jessie, Harper struggled up the stairways to the upper deck. He knew well that there were only 20 lifeboats on board. Even if all were filled to capacity, only half the 2224 passengers and crew could be accommodated.
What if the Titanic sank? Horror swept over him. Hundreds of men and women, heedless of his warnings, might soon perish.
‘Women and children first to the lifeboats’, yelled the stewards. ‘Surely’, thought Harper, ‘those in imminent spiritual peril must also have priority’. They were ill-prepared for death.
‘Women, children and the unsaved to the lifeboats’, he cried as he raced along the deck, still clutching Annie, with Jessie close behind.
Giving the six-year-old a quick hug, he handed her to a steward who put her in lifeboat number 11 together with Jessie. Then he continued his lonely mission.
Distress flares lit the night sky to alert any nearby ships of the Titanic’s imminent disaster. Wireless signals tapped out the urgent message as the ship’s stern began to rise slowly into the air, with the bow sinking below the icy waters.
One by one the lights went out. Panic set in, as passengers slid helplessly down the decks as the ship’s angle grew yet steeper. And still John Harper called his lone message, ‘Women, children and the unsaved to the lifeboats…’
Far different were the frenzied efforts of others. Many of the weak and vulnerable were pushed to the back as the affluent and influential were given priority. Some threw money at the stewards in an attempt to buy a place in a lifeboat.
Some were trampled underfoot. Others clung to each other in despair, preferring to die together rather than be separated. Pandemonium reigned.
The lifeboats, some only half filled at first, then others hopelessly overcrowded, swung jerkily towards the black and oily waters. By two in the morning the great ship began to break up, as the bow slid relentlessly further under the water.
Desperate, crazed passengers leapt into the depths. At 2.20am, on 15 April, the pride of the White Star Line sank to a watery grave just two hours and forty minutes after striking the iceberg.
A fearful silence followed, broken only by the screams of the drowning, struggling frantically in the dark waters.
‘Man, are you saved?’ shouted someone as he swam up to a desperate figure clinging to some debris.
‘No’, yelled the young man. As Harper was driven further off, he could be heard asking other drowning passengers the same vital question.
Now the brave evangelist was himself floundering. A moment or two later, almost exhausted, he was thrown back towards the first man.
‘Are you saved?’ he called again, fainter this time. ‘No’, shouted the other. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved’, cried Harper, as he lost the struggle, succumbing to the icy grip of death.
Surely here was one who like Charles Wesley could cry:
Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his name,
Preach him to all, and cry in death,
Behold, behold the Lamb!
The tragic sinking of the Titanic horrified and distressed the public on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time the Carpathia arrived at the scene two hours later, no survivors remained except those in the lifeboats — 711 in all. 1513 had perished that night.
But there was a sequel. The young man to whom John Harper had spoken had in fact been pulled into a lifeboat before it was too late. And as he himself testified some years later, in that last frightening hour, he had indeed found mercy, though faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.