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  • Mike Durbin

The Titanic: sharing the gospel with his last breath

PLYMOUTH – It is forever etched in history. April 14th, 1912. That was the night 111 years ago that the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The ship was built so well that some said even God couldn’t sink her. Two hours and forty minutes after impact, it was covered completely by the cold darkness of the Atlantic Ocean in a watery grave.

News of the tragedy quickly spread in newspapers across the nation - much of it totally wrong in the early hours. An internet search of newspaper headlines from April 15th paints an overwhelmingly hopeful portrait of what happened.

The British White Star Line, operator of the ill-fated ship, sent out a news release stating: “I am free to say that no matter how bad the collision with an iceberg, the Titanic would float. She is an unsinkable ship.”

“Titanic Sinking” was the eye-catching headline in the Oakland Examiner April 15th. The subtitle read, “Ill-fated vessel begins to founder while limping toward Halifax after all aboard are rescued.”

The headline of the Evening Observer in New York reported in bold print, “TITANIC RAMMED AN ICEBERG, LARGEST SHIP EVER BUILT WRECKED ON MAIDEN TRIP.” The article declared, “Great Steamers Rushed to Her Assistance When Wireless Flashed Out the Call for Help - Passengers Transferred In Safety--Crippled Monster Being Towed to Halifax.

The Evening Sun (Baltimore) proclaimed in all caps “ALL TITANIC PASSENGERS ARE SAFE; TRANSFERRED IN LIFEBOATS AT SEA”.

By April 16th the true horror about the tragic loss of life and the sinking of the Titanic was beginning to emerge. Less than one-third (706 people) of those aboard the ill-fated ship survived. 1,517 people died. Only six of those who fell into the frigid water survived. “In total, 50% of the children survived, 20% of the men and 75% of the women” (Wikipedia).

The tragic news brought 40,000 thousand people to the dock in New York to encourage, comfort and help the survivors brought to safety by the Carpathia.

Investigations in the United States and the United Kingdom sought to discover what actually happened and what could be done to prevent such a disaster in the future. It was discovered that one ship, the Californian, was near enough to the Titanic to see the distress signals, but failed to respond. British investigators came to the conclusion that had the California responded, “she might have saved many, if not all, of the lives that were lost.” The committee in the United States concluded that the Californian was “nearer the Titanic than the 19 miles reported by her Captain, and that her officers and crew saw the distress of the Titanic and failed to respond to them in accordance with the dictates of humanity, international usage, and the requirements of law” (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Not everyone agrees with the conclusions of the investigations. From the beginning, there has been both information and misinformation. Stories of heroism and selflessness abound. One of my favorites is about John Harper - a Scottish preacher on his way to preach for 3 months at the famed Moody Church in Chicago. He traveled on the Titanic with his six-year-old daughter.

After the collision, Harper made sure that his daughter was placed in one of the lifeboats. Survivors reported that after she was secured, he was heard shouting, "Let the women, children and the unsaved into the lifeboats." He gave his life jacket to a man who had none, saying “Don’t worry about me. I’m going up, not down.”

As the Titanic sank into the depths, passengers jumped into the frigid waters, including Harper.

Four years after the Titanic sank, one of the survivors shared this testimony at a reunion of survivors in Ontario, Canada. As he clung to a piece of debris from the wreckage, “Harper, who was struggling in the water near him, shouted out, "Are you saved?" "No," the man replied. Harper then shouted the words from Scripture: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." The man did not answer, and a moment later he drifted away on the waves.

A few minutes later, the current brought the two men back together. Again, Harper asked, "Are you saved?" Once again, the answer was "no." With his dying breath, Harper shouted, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved." He then slipped under the waves for the last time.

Then and there, the man he had witnessed to decided to turn his life over to Christ” (BREAKPOINT Commentary - April 14, 1999 By Charles W. Colson).

It was one week after Easter in 1912 that the Titanic struck the iceberg. John Harper believed the Gospel, lived the Gospel, and shared the Gospel. His life inspires us and challenges us to do the same. Happy Easter!



Mike Durbin is the State Evangelism Director for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Before joining the state convention staff, Mike served as Church Planting Catalyst and Director of Missions in Metro Detroit since 2007. He also has served as a pastor and bi-vocational pastor in Michigan, as well as International Missionary to Brazil.


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