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John Harper's Last Convert

John Harper's Last Convert poster

John Harper’s Last Convert - Sharing the Gift of Christmas One Minute before You Die

When I became pastor of The Moody Church in 1980, I knew one of the church rooms was named Harper Hall in memory of the Scottish evangelist who was on a journey to The Moody Church but drowned when the Titanic sank in April 1912. Only recently, however, did I learn the full story of this remarkable man.

Harper’s reputation as an evangelist was so well known that he was invited to speak at The Moody Church in 1910. I have in my possession a photocopy of a letter, in his own handwriting, which reads, “I have been in Chicago for three months, God gave us a very precious and wonderful revival of continuous services each day and sometimes even more often.” He went on to say that he now had been invited back to The Moody Church for another three months of meetings.

And so it was that John Harper, his sister, and his six-year-old daughter (his wife had died) found themselves on the great ship, the Titanic. Survivors later reported that as Titanic began to sink, Harper admonished people to be prepared to die. He made sure his sister and daughter were in a lifeboat even as he continued to share the Gospel with whoever would listen. And when he found himself in the icy water with a life jacket, floating near another man, Harper asked, “Are you saved?”

“No, I’m not saved!” the desperate man replied.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!” Harper shouted.

One report says Harper, knowing he could not survive long in the icy water, took off his life jacket and threw it to another person with the words, “You need this more than I do!” Moments later, Harper disappeared beneath the water. Four years later, when there was a reunion of the survivors of the Titanic, the man to whom Harper had witnessed told the story of his rescue and gave a testimony of his conversion recorded in a tract, I was John Harper’s Last Convert.

Before disappearing beneath the two and a half miles of water, John Harper shared, for the last time, the message of Christmas, which, in a nutshell, is that Jesus came to earth to die in our stead that we might be saved. This Gospel does not spare us from drowning in an ocean, but it does spare us from a far worse eternal destruction.

To complete the story: Harper’s six-year-old daughter and her aunt arrived safely in New York, rescued by the Carpathia, and only then learned of Harper’s death. And to the credit of The Moody Church, acting Pastor Reverend Woolley and a deacon traveled to New York to give them clothes and money so they could return to Scotland.

This past April, Rebecca and I were invited to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic with the congregation at the Harper Memorial Baptist Church in Glasgow. To our delight we discovered that this church, founded by Harper, is still preaching the same Gospel that he preached on the Titanic a hundred years ago. We also learned that his daughter later married a pastor. She died in 1986, but her daughter and grandchildren were with us for the celebrations! A reminder that there is no substitute for the torch of faith being passed from one generation to another through the influence of godly families.

The Secret of John Harper’s Powerful Witness

As we approach the Christmas season, we must ask ourselves: What do we need most as we enter a new year? What resolutions can we make that will change the trajectory of our lives and make the coming year different than the past? From where shall we receive the courage to face hard times and eventually our own demise?

And finally, what will it take for us to be burdened for our friends who know Christmas only as a feast of celebration and not as a feast of redemption? Perhaps the best answer to that question is to open a window into the private life of John Harper to discover the secret of his courage and witness even in the face of certain death. Here we will find our own motivation to speak to others about Christ at Christmas and throughout the year.

Harper’s life was characterized by extraordinary prayer. “He was,” said a friend, “a man who craved for souls.” And for those souls he would sometimes spend all night in prayer.

His brother George wrote, “My beloved brother was a man mighty in prayer. He was a master of this holy art. I have been with him in prayer again and again when his whole frame shook like an aspen leaf, so earnest was he in his pleadings with God for a perishing world. Little wonder hard hearts were broken and stubborn wills subdued under his ministry.”

A fellow evangelist, W.D. Dunn, gave this report, “I can say that no pastor, nor teacher, nor evangelist ever moved my inner being more than the pleading and preaching of John Harper. He was always on fire for God and souls. How often I heard him say, when lying on his face before God covered with perspiration, ‘O God give me souls or I die!’”

Another friend witnessed, “He was strong in his love for the perishing. Oh how he burned, and prayed, labored and wept for the conversion of sinners and blessed be God, great numbers were led to the Savior through his consecrated efforts.”

Testimonies of Harper’s prayer life could be multiplied. Friends spoke of him as “a man who was in touch with God,” and another, “I was amazed at his boldness in asking God for great things.” And yet another, “When John Harper prayed, heaven and earth met.”

We might wonder if it had been better if Harper had lived to preach at The Moody Church and other venues rather than be among those who perished on the Titanic. But God knows best. A hundred years after his death, we are still benefitting from the lasting effects of those final moments before he sank into the ocean. He left an example for tens of thousands of us who would never have heard of him if he had survived. God sees the big picture; we see but a small slice of time.

This Christmas, let us renew our commitment to the Good News that Jesus came to bring us, and let us share it with our friends. Our witness might not be as dramatic as the closing moments of John Harper’s life, but it can be just as sure, just as urgent, and just as confident.

What we need more than anything at this Christmas season is to become people of prayer. Let us share the Good News with a world drowning in sin and hopelessness. And let’s do it while we still have time.