The sinking of the White Star liner RMS Titanic on 14 April 1912 was international news. Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York struck a floating iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The vessel was sunk by the collision, and tragically 1500 passengers and crew were drowned.
Over the days following, the disaster local newspapers carried reports of the people of Renfrewshire caught up in the tragedy. Reading the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette of 27 April 1912, mention is made of one native of Renfrewshire who was highlighted for his brave actions as the Titanic sank. This was Pastor John Harper.
John Harper was born at Woodside Cottage in the village of Houston on 29 May 1872 to George and Rachel Harper. John and his brothers and sisters were brought up in the Baptist faith. By the age of eighteen John was preaching at local church meetings and beginning to gather a reputation for his evangelical style of delivery. John also worked at several local factories including the Stoddard’s carpet factory in Elderslie, the very factory that would one day make carpets for the Titanic, but he knew that his future was in the preaching of his Baptist faith. In 1897, John was given the opportunity to be the Pastor to the congregation of the Baptist mission in Govan at the Paisley Road Church. John’s style of preaching and ministry saw the congregation grow from just twenty-five to over five hundred and the church moved to a larger building in Plantation Street, Glasgow.
Following on from this John moved to be the Pastor to the congregation at Walworth Road Baptist Church in London. For some months in Autumn 1911 John was the guest Pastor at the Moody Church in Chicago, USA.
In his personal life John Harper married Anne Leckie Bell on 28 April 1903. On 1 January 1906, the couple welcomed the birth of a daughter. She was named Annie Jessie. On 8 January 1906 however, John’s wife Anne passed away from complications following childbirth. Anne’s unmarried niece Jessie Leitch joined the family at this time to care for the young child.
At the beginning of 1912, the congregation of the Moody Church asked John Harper to return to Chicago and he accepted this request accompanied by his six-year-old daughter and his niece Jessie Leitch. Setting sail in second class accommodation aboard the Titanic and looking forward to seeing friends in Chicago must have been an exciting prospect for Pastor Harper cut short by the tragedy which unfolded on the night of 14 April 1912.
After being made aware of the collision with the Iceberg, John rushed his daughter and niece to the lifeboats, before running back through the ship, alerting passengers to the danger and evangelised to the unsaved. Pastor Harper’s brave actions that night after ensuring his daughter and niece were safely in a lifeboat were recorded by several survivors. These included passing his own life belt to another passenger; reassuring other passengers whilst offering prayers for them and when he eventually had to jump into the icy waters, he was seen swimming between survivors clinging to debris and wreckage offering reassurance and prayers. Pastor Harper succumbed to hypothermia before rescue could reach him. A passenger who was later rescued by a lifeboat, noted his last interaction with John as they both clung to pieces of wreckage in the Atlantic. “Are you saved?” John yelled to him. When the passenger responded “No” John made his plea; “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”. The passenger could not respond and John would repeat again; “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”. It is believed that these are the last words of the reverend.
Pastor Harper’s body was never recovered but his daughter and niece both survived the disaster. There is no doubt that the actions of Pastor John Harper that night gave not only practical support in the form of a life belt for another passenger but also solace to others in a highly distressed situation.
“The fear of death did not for one minute disturb me. I believed that sudden death would be sudden glory.”