Was He a Heroic Christian, Misguided Zealot or Cold-hearted Father?
James Cameron’s epic movie Titanic was released a little over 25 years ago this month. But I’m not going to talk about the blockbuster movie. Instead, I want to tell you the true story of three passengers – a Protestant minister and widower, his young daughter and his adult niece – who were aboard the Titanic in 1912.
The minister will remain nameless for the moment because I want to pose several questions for you to consider. If you know the man’s identity and research him online, you will find a very one-sided version of his story.
It would be better for my purposes to give you the basic facts and ask you to think about the questions with an open mind. I promise to be as objective as possible in sharing the minister’s story.
Questions about the Minister
As I started my research, questions flooded my mind. Was the man really a selfless Christian who loved Christ above everything and everyone else?
Was he a selfish and misguided zealot?
Could he have been a cold-hearted father, instead?
How far should Christians go for Christ? What does Christ want from us? What would I have done? What would you have done?
The questions kept coming.
The Titanic Tragedy Unfolds
When the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton, England enroute to New York on April 10, 1912, it carried a host of millionaires and other famous people. It also carried a 39-year-old minister, his daughter and his niece, who was taking care of the young girl.
The widower was a dynamic man of God who pastored two churches, one in London and another in Glasgow, Scotland. He was traveling to the U.S. to lead services at a Chicago church where he had held an extremely successful revival a year or so earlier.
The success had prompted the church to invite him back. According to one account, the church planned to call him as its permanent pastor and he planned to accept.
He quickly arranged passage aboard the Lusitania, but then decided to book second-class accommodations on a brand-new luxury liner called Titanic.
Winning Souls for Christ
The minister was quite passionate about Christ and constantly found ways to introduce people to the Lord. His actions revealed a man who loved God with his heart, soul and mind.
His days onboard the Titanic gave him numerous opportunities to bring people to God, and he took advantage of them. In fact, his niece reported him talking to other passengers about their salvation on the afternoon of the disaster.
The Minister Responds to Crisis
The ship hit an iceberg shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912.
Newspapers were filled with stories about the tragedy in the days that followed. The pastor’s niece gave an account of the Titanic’s sinking, which ran in the Chicago Tribune a few days after the disaster.
She said that around midnight on April 14-15, her uncle came to the stateroom where she and his little girl were sleeping. He told her that the ship had struck an iceberg and everyone had been ordered to put on lifebelts, which they did.
The minister was quite calm as he picked up his daughter and the threesome went to the deck.
His niece explained, “Even then, we did not realize the danger, as we were assured again and again that the vessel would not sink, that the Olympic would be alongside at any minute, and that the women and children were to be put into the boats first and the men to follow, and that there were boats sufficient for all.”
Titanic carried 20 lifeboats, though it had room for 64, according to several sources. With a capacity of 3,320 people, the ship was equipped to save only 1,178 of them.
On deck, the minister made certain his niece and daughter reached the relative safety of a lifeboat before turning away. Theirs was the 11th of 18 lifeboats to be launched. The remaining two boats drifted away from the sinking ship without any passengers onboard.
Being a widower with a small child, the dedicated Protestant minister might have found a place on the lifeboat with his family. Other men who weren’t widowed parents were finding seats.
The Pastor’s Decision
But the minister didn’t try. Instead, he could be heard imploring one passenger after another to accept Christ as their savior.
When a man responded that he wasn’t saved, the minister took off his lifejacket and handed it to him. Passengers heard the pastor say something like, “You need this more than I do.”
John Harper’s fate was sealed. But as a Christian, he had been prepared to die from the very beginning, if only he could bring more people to Christ before he left this life.
The Reverend’s Dying Moments
Harper continued to evangelize as the dark Atlantic waters closed over the sinking ship. “Let the women, the children, and the unsaved into the lifeboats!” he cried out, according to “The Titanic’s Last Hero.” The book, written by evangelist Moody Adams, was published in 2012 — 100 years after the tragedy.
Harper grabbed hold of some wreckage and struggled to stay afloat, all the while calling out, “Are you saved?”
One man who heard him, George Henry Cavell, shouted that he wasn’t saved. Harper yelled back, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved….” (Acts 16:31).
The currents carried the two men apart for several moments before bringing them back together.
“Are you saved?” Harper called out again. “No!” Cavell responded once more. And again, Harper shouted, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved….”
Harper then slipped under the water, the victim of hypothermia, and was gone. But in that brief encounter, he had introduced Cavell to the Savior.
Harper’s “Last Convert”
Cavell survived the 25-degree water and was rescued. Sometime later, he shared his story with a gathering in Ontario, Canada. At that meeting, he referred to himself as John Harper’s last convert.
Learn more about Harper’s story by checking out some of my resources for this post. One article is The Man Who Died Preaching on the Titanic. Click here to read it. Another is an article on the Baptist Press Library website, which you may access here.
Read A minister on the ‘Titanic’ and the death of a mentor by clicking here.
Find out what Harper’s niece, Jessie Leitch, said in the Chicago Tribune story published several days after the disaster. Click here.
You also may find general information about the Titanic on the Royal Museums Greenwich website.
The Rest of the Story
Christian writers have heaped praise on John Harper for his sacrifice, and I intended to do the same when I began working on this Patheos article.
But I changed directions the moment I discovered that Harper was a widower with a child. That one fact changed my entire thought process.
I consider myself to be a devout Christian woman, but I’m also a fierce mother who began to ask troubling questions:
- Was Harper really a hero for his faith?
- Could he have been a misguided zealot, instead?
- Was he a cold-hearted father who left his daughter orphaned?
- How many more people could he have reached for Christ had he lived?
- How far should Christians go for Christ?
- Did Christ really want Harper to sacrifice his life?
- What would Christ want us to do?
- What would I have done?
Before you start forming an opinion about Harper’s story, let me share the end of it with you.
Harper’s six-year-old daughter, Annie Jessie (called Nana or Nina), survived the ordeal and returned to England with Jessie Leitch. She apparently grew up in London in the home of her uncle and aunt.
Nana eventually married Philip Roy Pont, and they moved to Scotland, where Philip pastored a church. They had two children.
She lived a long life, dying at age 80 on April 10, 1986. Her death came exactly 74 years to the day that the Titanic sailed from Southampton.
Here’s My Take on the Sinking
It wasn’t hard for me to decide what I would have done. I would have jumped into that lifeboat with my two children and pulled them close to me. We would have clung together until a rescue boat arrived, and I would not have let anyone separate us for any reason. Period!
Anyone who tried to do so…. well, let’s just say that hell hath no fury like a momma protecting her young – or something like that.
Granted, I’m a woman, which might have played a role in my reaction vs. Rev. Harper’s. Women don’t think the way men do, as you know.
My decision would have been automatic — pure instinct. I would not have left my children to face a dangerous situation without me. And it would not have mattered that I had family who could raise them.
My hypothetical decision might seem selfish, while Rev. Harper’s was heroic. However, I can’t imagine Christ demanding the ultimate sacrifice from someone in the minister’s situation. If nothing else, Christ might have had great plans for Rev. Harper as a minister of the gospel.
It’s hard to criticize a person who gave his life for the Lord. I don’t mean to belittle Rev. Harper in any way. He was a very courageous man, and no one should ever doubt his commitment to God.
But in choosing to die when he did, he robbed the world of a powerful voice for Christ. And he robbed his child of her only parent.
Those are my thoughts.
What about you? What would you have done and why? Please share your comments below.