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The Story of a Little-Known 1st Class Hero

Voice of the Kingfisher speaks out  …from a different perspective

                                                          by Elinor Montgomery

May 7, 2013

It was April 15, 1912, when the Titanic sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic, taking with it 1517 people to their watery grave. This opulent ship had been described as ‘a floating hotel, a small town at sea.’ And the luxury that the passengers had longed for, all the things that were rich and splendid, were gone from them to be found no more at all (see Revelation 18:14). 

“For in one hour such great riches came to nothing (Revelation 18:17).”

“Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate (Revelation 18:19).”

As the orchestra played aboard the Titanic, on the evening of April 14, 1912, a man called John Harper stood on deck in the afterglow of the sunset watching the red, western sky and was heard to say, “It will be beautiful in the morning.” He would never live to see that day, but rather, he would die a hero’s death, seeing to the salvation of others, including one of the six survivors who were plucked from the icy waters.

John Harper was a Baptist Pastor from Glasgow, Scotland, who had recently spent 3 months ministering at Moody Church in Chicago, during which time the church had experienced one of the greatest revivals in its history. He professed the simplest of doctrines, saying that it was ‘the Word of God.’ Upon his return to Glasgow, he was recalled to America and to the ministry of Moody Church.

He arranged for himself and his six-year-old daughter, Nana, to cross back over the ocean, on the Titanic, along with his sister, Jessie Wills Leitch, who would look after his motherless child on the journey. Originally scheduled to travel on the Lusitania, his plans were altered at the last minute so that he would sail on the Titanic, a week later. It has been said that a church-goer asked Harper not to go on the Titanic, offering to pay for another voyage.

This was a man, not unfamiliar with the dangers of the water. As a toddler, his mother pulled him from a well and resuscitated him. At age 26, he was swept out to sea at Barrow-in-Furness, yet was plucked from its deadly waters. Six years later, he found himself stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean on a sinking ship from which he was rescued.

It was exactly 101 years ago this past month when the ship, about which it had been said that even God could not sink it, struck an iceberg, sending it plummeting to its watery grave (By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen – Job 37:10). At that time, the 2nd Class passenger, John Harper, went into 1st Class mode, as a hero.

The man climbed an iron ladder, carrying his daughter, followed by his sister, to an upper deck to see them, both, safely placed in a lifeboat, which was # 11 to leave the sinking ship. After telling his daughter that he would see her again one day, he took off his life jacket and gave it to another passenger, who was without one. Apparently he was seen moving along the deck, calling for the women, children and unsaved to get into the lifeboats. It has been stated that he called upon the Titanic orchestra to play, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as people gathered around him and he knelt down to pray, ‘with a holy joy in his face’.

But his burning desire to save souls did not stop there. As the ship began to lurch, he jumped into the icy waters and swam to as many as he could reach, beseeching them to call upon the Lord Jesus to be saved.

About four years later, a young Scotsman by the name of Aquilla Webb stood up in a prayer meeting in Hamilton, ON, Canada, to give his testimony, as one of the six survivors scooped out of the icy waters surrounding the Titanic and lifted into the lifeboats. In tears, he told his riveting story of how he was clinging to life on a piece of floating debris in the freezing waters when, suddenly, a wave brought John Harper close to him. He, too, was holding on to a piece of wreckage, as he called to Webb, asking him if he were saved. Webb replied, “No, I am not,” so Harper shouted back to him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”

A wave took Harper away, but a little later he was washed back again to where Webb was in the water. He called out one more time, “Are you saved now?” and Webb replied, “No!” So Harper’s last words to Webb, before he lost hold of the wood and went down, were, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” And Aquilla Webb finished his testimony by saying that there, alone in the night with two miles of water under him, he trusted in Christ to be his Savior. He concluded with the words that he was John Harper’s last convert.

And so he survived the icy waters to live and tell the story of his salvation, because of a little-known hero, recorded in the book of God’s heroes, called John Harper, who gave his life that others could live. He might have been a 2nd Class passenger on board the Titanic, among the 1st Class of the world, but, as they switch places in God’s ship of the next world, he will be seated in a very special place of honor among the 1st Class.

It was at the young age of 39 that he passed from one world to the other. Has he been forgotten today? Millions upon millions of movie-goers, viewing the Titanic, watched when Leonardo DiCaprio sank beneath the icy waters of the Atlantic after urging Kate Winslet, lying in the water on top of a piece of wreckage, to survive the Titanic disaster. Could it be that the true story of John Harper inspired this incredulous moment of love and sacrifice, which culminated in a heaven-like climax, depicting what might have been the stairway to heaven, at the top of which Jesus awaited His bride of salvation?

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul (Mark 8:36)?”

“And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).”

“Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).”

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth (Proverbs 27:1).