“Let me tell you an amazing story about a person you want to be like. And please hang in there through some of the details. I can’t tell stories any other way.
John Harper was born in a Christian home in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1872. When he was about fourteen years old, he became a Christian himself, and from that time on, he began to tell others about Christ.
At seventeen years of age, he began to preach, going down the streets of his village and pouring out his soul in passionate pleading for men to be reconciled to God.
After five or six years of toiling on street corners preaching the gospel and working in the mill during the day, Harper was taken in by the Reverend E. A. Carter of Baptist Pioneer Mission in London.
This set Harper free to devote his whole time and energy to the work so dear to his heart—evangelism.
Soon, in September 1896, Harper started his own church. This church, which he began with just twenty-five members, numbered over five hundred by the time he left thirteen years later.
During this time he had been both married and widowed. Before he lost his wife, God blessed Harper with a beautiful little girl named Nana.
Harper’s life was an eventful one. He almost drowned several times. When he was two-and-a-half years of age, he fell into a well but was resuscitated by his mother.
At the age of twenty-six, he was swept out to sea by a reverse current an]d barely survived. And at thirty-two he faced death on a leaking ship in the Mediterranean.
If anything, these brushes with death simply seemed to confirm John Harper in his zeal for evangelism, which marked him out for the rest of the days of his life.
While pastoring his church in London, Harper continued his fervent and faithful evangelism. In fact, he was such a zealous evangelist that the Moody Church in Chicago asked him to come over to America for a series of meetings.
He did, and they went well. A few years later, Moody Church asked him if he would come back again. And so it was that Harper boarded a ship one day with a second-class ticket at Southampton, England, for the voyage to America.
Harper’s wife had died just a few years before, and he had with him his only child, Nana, age six. What happened after this we know mainly from two sources. One is Nana, who died in 1986 at the age of eighty.
She remembered being woken up by her father a few nights into their journey. It was about midnight, and he said that the ship they were on had struck an iceberg.
Harper told Nana that another ship was just about there to rescue them, but, as a precaution, he was going to put her in a lifeboat with an older cousin, who had accompanied them. As for Harper, he would wait until the other ship arrived.
The rest of the story is a tragedy well known. Little Nana and her cousin were saved. But the ship they were on was the Titanic.
The only way we know what happened to John Harper after is because, in a prayer meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, some months later, a young Scotsman stood up in tears and told the extraordinary story of how he was converted.
He explained that he had been on the Titanic the night it struck the iceberg. He had clung to a piece of floating debris in the freezing waters.
“Suddenly,” he said, “a wave brought a man near, John Harper. He, too, was holding a piece of wreckage. “He called out, ‘Man, are you saved?’
“‘No, I am not,’ I replied.
“He shouted back, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’ (Acts 16:31)
“The waves bore [Harper] away, but a little later, he was washed back beside me again. ‘Are you saved now?’ he called out.
“‘No,’ I answered. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’ (Acts 16:31)
“Then losing his hold on the wood, [Harper] sank. And there, alone in the night with two miles of water under me, I trusted Christ as my savior. I am John Harper’s last convert.”
–Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 13-15. For more on John Harper, see Moody Adams, The Titanic’s Last Hero: Story About John Harper (Columbia, SC: Olive Press, 1997), 24–25.