Titanic sinking: How Scots preacher John Harper came to be hailed the 'bravest man on that boat' – Susan Morrison

A letter written by the Rev John Harper on Titanic stationery recently sold at an auction for £42,000

The Reverend John Harper was something of a rising star in Scotland’s early 20th-century Baptist community. Born in 1872 in a tiny cottage in Houston, Renfrewshire, he began his preaching career at the age of 18. He impressed a local Baptist minister, who secured him a ministry in Govan, in what was then known as Paisley Road Baptist Church.

John Harper’s charismatic and compelling preaching grew the original congregation from 25 to more than 500. They had to build a new church from corrugated iron, hence the nickname the ‘Tin Kirk'. He married Annie Leckie Bell in 1903, and in 1906, they welcomed a daughter, named after her mother, but always called Nana, or Nina. Sadly, Annie died shortly after the birth.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

John was in demand. Invitations to preach were coming in from all over Ireland and Scotland. The little girl needed care, so a niece, Jessie, was brought in to look after her. The arrangement must have worked. When John became a pastor at Walworth Road Baptist Church, all three moved to London, to a house on Camberwell’s Love Walk.

‘No opportunity for farewell’

By 1911, John Harper was a global preacher. He had been invited to the other side of the Atlantic, to Chicago’s Moody Church for three months. He must have been a hit, because they asked him to come back. This time the congregation paid not just John’s fare, but also Nina and Jessie’s. John may have been thinking of a new start in the States.

In 1912, John, Jessie and six-year-old Nina were shown to their second-class accommodation on a luxurious new ship. It was her maiden voyage. Her name was Titanic. April 14, 1912, was a Sunday. In the evening, Reverend Harper, Jessie and Nina took a final turn on deck. His daughter later recalled that her father looked out over the setting sun and said: “It will be beautiful in the morning.”

This photograph was taken in the same area of the Atlantic Ocean where the RMS Titanic would sink just 11 days later on April 15, 1912 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)This photograph was taken in the same area of the Atlantic Ocean where the RMS Titanic would sink just 11 days later on April 15, 1912 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This photograph was taken in the same area of the Atlantic Ocean where the RMS Titanic would sink just 11 days later on April 15, 1912 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Aunt Jessie remembered what happened later that night. “About midnight Mr Harper came to our stateroom and told us that the vessel had struck an iceberg… picking up Nana in his arms, he took her up to the deck. There was no opportunity for farewell.”

Read More
How The Scotsman reported the Titanic disaster

Perhaps the Reverend Harper believed the crew's assurances that there would be room in later lifeboats, or that Titanic’s sister ship Olympic was on her way and would be alongside any minute. Perhaps he didn’t, and knew the truth. Either way, he handed Nina into Lifeboat Eleven, then vanished into the crowd. They never saw him again.

Harper’s last convert?

Much later, Nina said they heard the screams as the ship went down. They never recovered John Harper's body, but his memory took on a life of its own. He was cast as a hero of the Titanic. At a memorial service in Moody Church itself, the assistant pastor, the Rev EY Woolley, claimed a Swedish sailor, one of the last survivors off the sinking ship, saw a minister asking the orchestra to play “Nearer, my God, to Thee”. He saw the preacher “kneeling in the centre of the circle, with arms uplifted and holy joy upon his face…We can well believe that this was our beloved brother John Harper… always about his Master’s business, bold and fearless”. John’s death, it would seem, was becoming what we would now call a ‘teaching moment’.

Even more spectacularly, in 1916, a young Scotsman suddenly stood up in a prayer meeting in Canada. He told the congregation that his name was Aquila Webb, and announced that he was “a survivor of the Titanic. When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night, the tide brought Mr John Harper of Glasgow, also on a piece of wreck, near me. ‘Man,’ he said, ‘Are you saved?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’ He replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’

“The waves bore him away; but, strange to say, brought him back a little later, and he said, ‘Are you saved now?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I cannot honestly say that I am.’ He said again, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed. I am John Harper’s last convert.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Stirring stuff, but easily debunked. In Woolley’s account, it's a safe bet the orchestra weren’t taking literally last-minute requests, and whilst there were Swedish people aboard, none were crew.

A hero nonetheless

The 1916 story stretches belief even further. No one aboard was called “Aquila Webb”, a distinctly eccentric name for a Scot. People struggling in the freezing North Atlantic wouldn’t really have time or even be capable of having a bit of a chat about redemption.

These myths of the 'brave pastor' and the 'last convert' obscure the fact that John Harper really was a hero. As Nina’s widowed father, he would have been allowed into the lifeboat. He chose not to go. He handed his daughter to safety, then stayed on the ship. It's not hard to believe that he gathered people to pray and to give them comfort.

There is no grave for Reverend Harper, but his name is on a monument in Craigton Cemetery, and Paisley Road Baptist Church was renamed Harper Memorial Baptist Church. It's still there. Daughter and niece returned to Britain, on the SS Celtic. Jessie died in 1963 aged 83. Nina returned to Scotland. She died in 1986, and was buried in Moffat Cemetery,

In 2020 a letter by John, written on Titanic stationery, went under the hammer at an auction for £42,000, a figure that would have astonished John Harper. The auctioneer described him as the “bravest man on that boat”.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.