The Man Who Preached as the Titanic Sank

I had never heard of John Harper, the pastor of Walworth Road Baptist Church in London. Perhaps you have never heard of him either and so, like me, you would be surprised to discover that one of his letters sold at auction this week for £42,000 (NZ$80,464).

There is nothing profound about the letter. It does not contain any riveting theological insights. It offers no revolutionary advice, only a simple thank you to a friend who had shown him hospitality. The reason for the extraordinary price tag is revealed in the letterhead. ‘On board R.M.S Titanic.’

In a BBC article about the sale of the letter [1], the auctioneer was quoted as saying

‘John Harper was probably one of the bravest men on that boat.’

John Harper was on the Titanic, bound for America to preach at the Moody Church when the infamous tragedy occurred. When all the other passengers with the same class of ticket were climbing into lifeboats, John Harper refused. He could have sat alongside his daughter and sister, but stayed on the ship and minister to those who could not escape. From the deck of the sinking Titanic, Harper preached the gospel. He took off his life jacket and gave it to a passenger who did not have one, epitomising what it means to be a dying man preaching to dying men. Survivors reported that as the ship sank, Harper continued preaching.

It amazed me to read John Harper’s story, especially in a BBC article. His actions are such a powerful challenge to our own witness and evangelism. His determination to put others above himself and love the lost is inspiring. How easy it would have been to convince himself that his sister and daughter needed him in the lifeboat with them. How appealing to think of the hundreds who would hear him preach at the Moody church or the thousands who might come and listen to a Titanic survivor speak about Jesus. Instead, John Harper saw men and women on the doorstep of Hell and gave them all hope. He offered not only the life jacket that saved one man’s life, but Jesus who saves the souls of all who call on His name.

My only disappointment with the BBC article was the penultimate quote from the auctioneer: “His actions epitomised that British generation in times of adversity.” That left a bitter taste in my mouth. John Harper did not go willingly to death because he was British. As a British ex-pat myself, I am proud to belong to a nation with a history of men and women who have accomplished remarkable things and showed extraordinary resolve in the toughest of circumstances. However, ‘Britishness’ is not what John Harper was displaying and to call it ‘Britishness’ is to diminish what he did to the point of being offensive.

What John Harper did on the Titanic was not an attribute common to any nation. His behaviour was not British, Kiwi, American, European or any other national distinctive. What Harper did was the behaviour of a citizen of another world. His self-sacrifice is the behaviour of a man who knows that this life is not all there is. It is the action of a man who does not belong to himself but is called by God to be a servant of His gospel for the salvation of Sinners. Standing on that deck, handing over your one chance of survival to a stranger and spending your dying minutes pleading with people to be reconciled to God is the behaviour of a man who loves Jesus and seeks to imitate Him. This was not a Brit, but a saint!

I want to leave you with a challenge. If you are a Christian, I could ask, ‘What would you have done in Harper’s situation?’ However, very few if any of us will ever be in a situation like John Harper was. So here is my challenge: If John Harper could preach the gospel on the sinking Titanic, can we not speak a word for Christ in the staff room, the changing rooms, the pub, the café or the living room? Some of us have often sung Wesley’s words: ‘Happy if with my latest breath, I may but gasp His name, preach Him to all and cry in death: behold, behold the lamb!’ How many John Harper’s are there among us who really mean what we are singing?

If you are not a Christian and for some weird reason you have read all the way to here, I want to ask, what does John Harper’s death say to you? If he was so sure he was going to Heaven that he could give his life jacket to a stranger, isn’t it worth looking into the faith Harper had? Why not read about the Jesus Harper was so obsessed with in the gospel he died preaching? Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ John 15:13. Maybe John Harper’s death still has something to say today and perhaps, over 100 years later, John Harper will be a friend to you, pointing you towards his precious saviour.

Geoff Lloyd, the Pastor at Wyndham Evangelical Church, contributed this article. He is also one of our editors.


[1] 54934283#:~:text=A%20letter%20written%20by%20a,ocean%20liner%20in%20April%201912.

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