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The Witness of John Harper

In the first moments of Monday, April 15th, 1912, many men and women sought their own best, sometimes at the expense of others. However, several seldom-celebrated individuals ignored that urge for mere self-preservation and followed a more ancient code. “Greater love has no one than this,” the New Testament tells us, “than he lay down his life for his friends.”

John “Jack” Phillips and Harold Bride had been working feverishly, trying to catch up on a huge backlog of passenger messages to be sent to the mainland via the wireless station at Cape Race, Newfoundland. The in-box was loaded with outgoing messages. It was no wonder they didn’t know the ship was in trouble.

The Titanic’s captain, E. J. Smith, poked his head in the wireless shack just after midnight. “We’ve struck an iceberg...,” the Captain announced. “You better get ready to send out a call for assistance, but don’t send it until I tell you.” The captain returned a few minutes later: “Send the call for assistance.” He handed them a piece of paper with the Titanic’s position.

From that point on, First Operator Phillips and Second Operator Bride remained at their post, communicating via Morse Code with many ships, but the one that made a difference was the Carpathia, some 58 miles to the southeast.

Phillips and Bride stayed at their post literally to the final minutes, as the sea water began to rise toward the radio room. They were able to clmb onto an overturned “collapsible” lifeboat. Though the frostbitten Bride survived, Phillips died sometime during the night from exposure, silently slipping off the lifeboat and into the icy waters.

Arthur H. Rostron commanded the Carpathia, a much smaller passenger ship of the rival Cunard line. Immediately upon receiving word of Titanic’s plight from his ship’s wireless operator, Rostron changed course and fired up the boilers to full steam. Though her top speed was only 14 knots, the Carpathia would soon be steaming through the same ice field that crippled and sank the Titanic.

Within minutes Rostron had summoned all his department heads to the bridge and delivered detailed instruction. They had three-and-a-half hours to prepare for hundreds of ocean refugees. Besides his reputation for quick decisions and high energy, Rostron was also known for another character trait. he was a man of prayer.

After all preparations were well under way and he was briefed as to their progress, he lifted his cap a few inches above his head and in the darkness of the bridge silently moved his lips in prayer. After the survivors were all aboard, and before leaving the scene, Rostron led a brief memorial service in memory of those perished and in thanksgiving for those spared.

“When day broke,” the captain told a friend years later, “I saw the ice I had steamed through during the night, I shuddered, and could only think that some other Hand than mine was on that helm during the night.”

Much earlier that same night, hours before the Titanic’s starboard bow fatally glanced the iceberg, the Reverend John Harper had braved the cold to stand on deck with a few other passengers after dinner. A beautiful sunset colored the western horizon. “It will be beautiful in the morning,” Harper said to his sister-in-law, who along with his 6-year-old daughter, Nina, was traveling with him to Moody Church in Chicago.

After the collision, Harper, a Baptist pastor from Scotland, awakened Nina from her slumber, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her up to a deck. He kissed her good-bye and handed her to a crewman, who gave her to Harper’s sister-in-law in lifeboat #11. That was the last the two saw of him.

Though his later exploits are not certain, it has been reported that Harper gave his lifebelt to another man before he went down with the ship. A brochure in the possession of Harper’s grandson, printed after the disaster, was recently shown to an American writing a book on Harper. In the brochure’s Foreword is written a first-person account by a nameless survivor. In this brochure, whether legend or true, the survivor tells of finding himself, with hundreds of others, “struggling in the cold, dark waters of the Atlantic.”

“I caught hold of something and clung to it for dear life, the wail of the perishing all around was ringing in my ears.” A stranger drifted near him and encouraged him to look to Jesus for his soul’s safety.

The two drifted apart and then together again. The stranger, floating alongside in the 28-degree waters, encouraged him again to call out to Jesus. As they drifted apart, the stranger could be hard making his same plea to others struggling in the moonless night.

“Then and there,” the nameless survivor concludes, “with two miles of water beneath me, in my desperation I cried to Christ to save me.” This same survivor later claimed that to his knowledge the selfless counselor, thinking of the eternal welfare of others in his final minutes, was the Rev. John Harper.

Shackleford, “Of Greater Love,” Pursuit, Vol. VII, 1998, p. 17