17 December 2017


The sinking and the soul-winner: John Harper’s last convert

Among the many significant dates of 2012 none stands out more prominently than the centenary of the sinking of the mighty Titanic. Sunday, 15 April 1912 was a tragic night when over 1,500 souls lost their lives in the north Atlantic. It is a story which has gripped the imagination ever since.

Of the 2,223 people on board that fateful night some were millionaires and some were businessmen; some were labourers and deckhands, every individual unique and everyone’s story worth telling.

One story particularly worth noting is that of Baptist pastor – John Harper. John was born in May 1872 in Renfrewshire, Scotland. He was just 13 years and 10 months old when on the last Sunday of March 1886 he trusted Christ – in response to John 3:16. His background was of life in a godly home but Harper recognised that this alone did not make him right with God. He found employment first as a gardener and then later on in a paper mill.

At the age of 17 he commenced open-air preaching. It was said of him that ‘Every street corner was his pulpit’. Remaining single through his twenties, he took up pastoral work. But then romance blossomed and he married Annie Leckie Bell in 1903. Their happiness together though was short-lived as two years later his wife tragically died in childbirth, leaving John as a widower and single father with a little girl, Nana to care for.

His pastorate of the church in Glasgow was marked by success – it grew from just 25 to 500 regular attenders after 13 years of work. The church is today known as Harper Memorial Baptist Church in memory of this fine pastor. His sermons were often remembered and particularly impressive was the way he would quote Bible texts. As a result, he often got invited to preach in other parts of the United Kingdom and conducted a memorable evangelistic mission in Mountpottinger Baptist Tabernacle. In our own church at Newtownbreda we have a member whose mother came to faith in Christ at that mission.

Harper was invited to preach at Moody Church, Chicago and it was this invitation which led him to being a passenger on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Remarkably, Harper had already been saved from drowning on three separate occasions in his life. At two years of age he fell into a well and was resuscitated, just in time, by his distraught mother. When he was 26 he was swimming in the sea at Barrow-in- Furness when a reverse current carried him away and he was very fortunate to survive. Later on he was on board a leaking ship in the Mediterranean. Harper later wrote of this dramatic incident: ‘The fear of death did not for one moment disturb me. I believed that sudden death would be sudden glory, but there was a wee motherless girl in Glasgow’.

As the freezing waters of the Atlantic crept slowly over the decks of the Titanic, John Harper shouted, ‘Let the women, children and the unsaved into the lifeboats’. What heroism! Harper knew full well the terrors of drowning and his young daughter Nana, just six years of age was travelling with him and would soon be left an orphan.

When the alarm sounded the end, Harper immediately handed Nana to an upper deck officer with the instructions to get her to a lifeboat. She survived, returned to Scotland, grew up to marry a minister and dedicated her entire life to the Lord her father had served. Harper took his life-jacket and gave it to another. As he floundered in the icy waters, he could be heard urging those around him to trust Christ in their dying moments. A man clinging to a board drifted near to Harper, who cried out ‘Man, are you saved?’ Providentially, that man survived to tell the story and share widely his testimony of how he was John Harper’s last convert. This is how he told it…..

“I left England on board the Titanic as a careless, godless sinner. When the terrible catastrophe struck, I found myself struggling in freezing waters. I caught hold of something and clung to it for dear life. The wail of awful distress from the perishing all around was ringing in my ears when there floated nearby a man who also was clinging to something. He asked me was I saved and when I said I was not, he quoted a Bible text which I now know to be Acts 16 :31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.” We drifted apart for a few moments and then seemed to be driven together once more. Again he asked me “Is your soul saved?”

He then made an intense appeal to me to be saved. I heard him calling out this message to others before I heard him say ‘I’m going down, I’m going down; no, no I’m going up’.

With two miles of water beneath me, in my desperation I cried unto Christ to save me and I believed and was saved. I am John Harper’s last convert.’”

What a way to go for John Harper, from the Atlantic to God’s nearer presence – serving faithfully to the end.

Trevor Ramsey


Article by: Trevor Ramsey, Newtownbreda

Baptist Church. First printed in ABC Insight. Used with permission.