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A Minister on the Titanic and the Death of a Mentor


A Baptist minister named John Harper was on board the Titanic when it sank in the Atlantic Ocean in April 1912. He had a seat on a lifeboat alongside his sister and six-year-old daughter but gave it up so he could stay on the sinking ship to preach to its doomed passengers. He even gave his life jacket to another passenger, who miraculously survived the disaster.

Rev. Harper continued sharing the gospel on the ship as it sank and then with those in the freezing water before he died. His daughter, Annie Jessie, went on to become the longest-living Scottish Titanic survivor.

Before the Titanic set sail, Pastor Harper wrote a letter to another clergyman, dated April 11, 1912. He thanked his fellow minister for his kindness when they had been together recently and closed his note, “The warriors are with me here and are doing well so far on the journey. With kindest love, your loving auld Pastor, John Harper.”

The letter recently sold at auction for more than $55,000. Its author’s sacrificial service after he wrote it was beyond price.

Why our "tolerant" society does not tolerate evangelical Christians

I have often observed that for Christians, the twenty-first century looks more like the first century than any in between. Here’s one example: our movement must be validated today in precisely the same way it was validated when it began.

Early Christians had no denominations; ours are declining and considered irrelevant by many. Early believers did not separate themselves into clergy and laity (the latter term did not come into popular use until the third and fourth centuries); “clergy” today are increasingly held in disrespect. For early Christians, making their faith public could be dangerous; the persecution of Christians today has been described as worse “than at any time in history.”

Early Christians were widely seen as a threat to the religious authorities (cf. John 11:45-53; John 12:9-11; Acts 4:1-22; Acts 5:17-42) and to the Empire (thus the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul and the exile of John); Christian morality is seen as dangerous by many today. (For more, see my e-book, Respected to Irrelevant to Dangerous: Does Religion Poison Everything?


For decades, writers like me have grieved the fallacious claim that all truth claims are personal and subjective, requiring us to tolerate all views as equally valid. But philosopher R. J. Snell notes that such tolerance has become highly intolerant in recent years. In fact, our culture has devolved to the point that it condemns any perspective which represses an individual’s instinctual desires.

According to this view, “The law represses and binds, religion represses, civilization represses, zoning represses, as do money and property, marriage, monogamy, the equation of sex and gender, the family, and prohibitions against looting.”

This perspective explains the destruction not only of statues of Confederates like Jefferson Davis but also of statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It justifies looting as the demand for justice as the individual defines it. It is impossible by definition to reason with those who hold this negative view of tolerance, since, as Dr. Snell notes, “they have rejected reason, have negated the moral codes, and now wish to rule.”

The path to persuasive power

In a culture that rejects our faith as repressive but is closed to reason, how are we to “make disciples” as Jesus’ witnesses (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8)? By doing what the first Christians did. 

Following the example of their Lord, they met physical needs to meet spiritual needs. When they gave “as any had need” (Acts 2:45), “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). When they ministered to a man who was lame from birth (Acts 3:1-10), “all the people” were “utterly astounded” and heard the gospel as a result (v. 11). When they “had everything in common,” the apostles could testify to the resurrection of Jesus “with great power” (Acts 4:32-33).

Paul was freed from his Philippian jail by a miraculous earthquake, prompting the jailer to draw his sword to kill himself, “supposing that the prisoners had escaped” (Acts 16:27). But Paul “cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here'” (v. 28), saving the man’s life. He was then able to share the gospel, and the Lord saved the man’s soul (vv. 29–34).

We can show a skeptical and even persecuting culture the truth of our faith by demonstrating the relevance of our compassion. When John Harper gave up his seat on a Titanic lifeboat, choosing to stay behind that he might share the gospel with as many doomed passengers as possible, do you think any of them doubted the sincerity or power of his faith? We cannot know on this side of heaven how many people we will meet in heaven who came to Jesus as a result of Rev. Harper’s courageous compassion.

Now it is our turn. The most resistant people you know will find it difficult to resist personal kindness. The more they reject our faith, the more they need our witness. And the greater the need for courage, the greater its power. (For more, see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about service?“)

The homegoing of a hero

I’ll close today by paying tribute to a mentor who modeled compassionate courage as powerfully as anyone I have ever known.

Dr. John Edmund Haggai stepped into heaven Wednesday night at ninety-six years of age. He founded the Haggai Institute in 1962, a ministry that has equipped more than 123,000 strategic leaders in 189 nations.

When I became his pastor in Atlanta in 1994, he quickly became my mentor, encourager, and spiritual hero. Our monthly lunches were highlights I remember vividly to this day. His phone calls and words of support over the years since have been investments in my heart and calling. 

His life motto became my own. I shared it with the churches I served and embraced it when we began our present ministry in 2009: “Attempt something so great for God, it’s doomed to failure unless God be in it.”

What will you attempt for God today?

NOTE: This is the last note you’ll see from me regarding the release of my newest book, Bright Hope for Tomorrow: How Jesus’ Parables Illuminate Our Darkest Days. Looking at ten of Jesus’ parables, my new book sheds light on Jesus’ powerful short stories so that you can find hope in hard times. I urge you to please request your copy today to ensure that you’ll receive my latest book.

Publication date: November 20, 2020

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Topical Press Agency/Stringer

Jim Denison, PhD, is a cultural theologian and the founder and CEO of Denison Ministries. Denison Ministries includes,,, and Jim speaks biblically into significant cultural issues at Denison Forum. He is the chief author of The Daily Article and has written more than 30 books, including The Coming Tsunamithe Biblical Insight to Tough Questions series, and The Fifth Great Awakening.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

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