Lessons From the Titanic Pt.1

This is a Special Guest Post by Alex Carmichael

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. For generations, this tragic story has captivated the hearts and minds of people in all walks of life all over the world.  People of all ages are still greatly intrigued with her story.  Even after all this time, interest in the Titanic still runs deep.

I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic since at least the time I was in high school, and I’ve come across many a tale about her voyage and sinking.  Some of it has been incredible yet true, and some of it has been found to be interesting but untrue.  There have even been a great many myths and legends put forth as to the cause of the disaster ever since that fateful night in 1912, tales ranging from sabotage to an evil curse of a mummy that was said to be on board.  All very intriguing.  But it’s important to sort the truth from the myth, to separate the wheat from the chaff.  So what I am going to do over the course of the next three Sundays is to bring you the true story of the Titanic.  I’ll also let you know if some of the stories are apocryphal or unverified.  And above all, we’ll look at this from a Biblical perspective.

We’ll start our journey this morning by first looking at why the story of the Titanic has had such enduring appeal the past one hundred years.  For one, I think people are fascinated by it in part because of our putting ourselves in their shoes of the people on board the Titanic.  This is a common occurrence among Titanic buffs, and I’ve often thought, “What would I have done?”.  What would I have done if I were on board and saw the lifeboats going off half-filled with people after the call for “Women and children first”?  Would I have tried to have gotten onto one of them?  Or would I have followed the protocol of the day?  I’ve wondered, would I have been courageous like the engineers and crewmen who remained below decks at their posts, who kept the ship going, trying to save the sinking ship?  What would I have done if I were on the ship as it was lurching upward, and about to go under?  What would I have done if I found myself in the icy waters with little hope of rescue?  What exactly would I have done if I were in their shoes?  These were things I’ve thought of almost every time I’ve read or seen something about that fateful night 100 years ago..
And that perspective of what I would have done has greatly changed as I’ve gotten older.  When I was in high school, it was all about me, how would I have saved myself if I were in that situation.  But now, and from the time I was married and had children, the question has become a more difficult one, as the question now is, “What would I have done to save all of us?”.  And every time I’ve thought about it in that light, it’s always come back to not wanting to think about being in their shoes…

I was, however, vividly confronted with having to think about this kind of situation while on my honeymoon.  For our honeymoon tour around Scotland, Julie and I booked passage on a roll-on/roll-off car ferry from Oban on the Scottish mainland.  This is the type of ferry where you drive on to the ship in what amounts to it becoming a huge sea-ferring parking lot.  The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry would take us over the sea to Skye, and then we’d venture our way on to the outer Isles.

When the ferry docked, it let down its massive ramp doors, and we drove on board the ship.  We were then directed to a parking spot about halfway into and under the ship.  As we got out of the car, I looked to where we were to drive out from later on, and then to where we had just driven in from.  As soon as I did this, the memory of what took place only a few years earlier startled me.

What that was, was the tragedy of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise, a car and passenger ferry–  just like the one we were on–  that operated the Dover to Europe route across the English Channel.  That ferry capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew.  It was the second deadliest maritime disaster involving a British ship in peacetime since the sinking of the Titanic.

What happened with the debacle of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise was, before leaving port, it was the duty of a specific crewman to electronically close the large ramp doors.  However, the crewman responsible for that task that day was still in his cabin, and was still asleep when the harbor station call sounded and the ship was ready to set sail.  The first officer who was required to stay on deck to make sure the doors were indeed closed was under pressure to get to his station on the bridge, and he had left the deck with the ramp doors open in the expectation that the crewman responsible for closing the doors would arrive in time to do so.  The captain of the ship assumed that the doors had been closed since he could not see them from the wheelhouse because of the ship’s design, and there were no indicator lights in the bridge.  So the boat took off…and the water rushed in…

At a hearing afterwards, the first officer was asked why he did not close the ramp doors given there was no one else there to do it.  His response:  it was not his duty…

I’m sure the ferry that we were on was a much safer ship because of that disaster in Belgium.  And it was a nice ship that we took, very fast and very powerful.

But it didn’t hold a candle to the beauty and elegance of the Titanic.  It may sound like a cliché, but they really don’t make ships like her any more.  Yes, today’s ultra-modern ships have all the electronic gadgetry and convenience that one can imagine.

But the Titanic would have had them too, if they were available.  What is missing from today’s ships that wasn’t missing on the Titanic is the grandeur and the great attention to detail that was evident everywhere on the Titanic.  Even in the Steerage Class quarters, the 3rd Class quarters, these poor people who were on their way to a better life were staying in rooms they never imagined they’d ever see.  The entire Titanic made whoever you were, whether the wealthiest of the wealthy or someone in Steerage whose only possessions were little more than the clothes they were wearing, whoever you were, you felt like you were in a dream.  For if there was ever the epitome of a physical expression of opulence, it was this ship.

And this grandness is what made so many of the world’s most rich and powerful want to get on board, particularly for her maiden voyage.  It drove them to be the first to see what was on the Titanic–  and to be seen on her as well.

The Titanic’s passenger list is a veritable Who’s Who of the world’s uber wealthy, a ship full of the super rich and famous.  That’s why the ship was dubbed “The Millionaire Special”, and the luxury and status-symbol that sailing on the maiden voyage of the Titanic is a reason why so many of the world’s so-called “elite” were on board.  To get a one-way ticket in a First Class State Room cost $4,000 (£2,500).  Today, that would roughly be $75,000 (£47,000).  Round trip, that would be, in today’s money, $150,000 (£94,000).  Amazingly, the combined wealth of the passengers on board the Titanic was $500 million (£315 million), or about $9.375 billion in today’s money (£5.591 billion).

One of the very wealthy on board was John Jacob Astor, who was, in fact, the richest man in the world at the time, worth $150 million (£94.6 million).  That would equate to about $2.8 billion (£1.8 billion) in today’s money.  He was a colonel during the Spanish-American War, who put his personal yacht at the disposal of the U.S. government.  He was also an inventor who helped to develop the turbine engine, and he was also a real estate magnate who built the famous Astoria Hotel in New York City

Astor was on the Titanic because he was returning from Egypt with his new 19 year old bride.  They were on an extended international honeymoon after his divorce from his first wife, and their affair had scandalized New York City.  Astor’s new bride was even younger than his son.

But this wealthiest of men would not return to New York.  After the Titanic hit the iceberg, he left his extravagant suite to investigate the incident.  He was unimpressed, so he quickly returned and reported to his wife that the ship had just struck ice, but that the damage did not appear serious. She wasn’t alarmed at the news, but her husband’s reassurances soon proved to be unfounded.

Later on, when all seemed lost, and as his wife boarded a lifeboat, Astor asked if he could accompany her, due to her “delicate condition”, as she was pregnant.  He was denied access to the lifeboat by a senior officer, Charles Lightoller, as the call was for “woman and children first”.  Astor then threw his gloves to his wife, and lit a cigarette.

He and his dog were last seen alive on deck before the ship went down.  His body was recovered, crushed and covered with soot, as he was one of the gravely unfortunate swimmers who were hit by the ship’s forward funnel after it collapsed.  These huge funnels were massive, large enough for two trains to pass through side by side.  Astor never stood a chance.  He was only 47.

Strangely enough, as that funnel fell onto the water and onto that group of ill-fated swimmers that included Astor, it also kicked up a wave that washed a collapsible lifeboat thirty yards clear of the Titanic.  Those who were clinging to the collapsible lifeboat were afraid that when the ship went down, they would be sucked down with her.  That terror never materialized for them when the funnel pushed them clear, and one of the fortunate few included Lightoller.

Another person of great wealth on board was Benjamin Guggenheim, who was worth $95 million (£60 million) ($1.8 billion/£1.1 billion today), a fortune his family made in the mining and smelting industry.  His family possessed one of the largest fortunes in the world.  Benjamin Guggenheim, though, was known as a spoiled, arrogant, and wilful man, determined to live life his own way to the detriment of others.  He was on board with his new mistress.

As the ship was going down, Guggenheim found that he couldn’t get on any lifeboat.  Fearing the worst, he told a steward: “Tell my wife I did my best in doing my duty.”.  He then prepared himself for the end.

As this was set to be the next to last night out for the journey, when First Class passengers customarily dressed in their most resplendent attire for dinner, Guggenheim decided to dress in that formal evening ware to meet his fate.  He and his valet sat in chairs on the deck, sipping brandy and smoking cigars while the Titanic sank.  He is famous for these comments as the liner was about to go down: “We’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”  He was just 46 years old.

Another prominent passenger on the Titanic that night was Isidor Strauss, the owner of Macy’s department store in New York City.  He was worth $50 million (£31 million) ($937.5 million/£581.3 million today).  He was travelling with Ida, the wife of his youth.

When the elderly couple appeared at the lifeboats, Ida was told to get into the half-filled lifeboat.  As she began to climb into the lifeboat, at the last second, she changed her mind, turning to her husband and said, “We have been living together for many years.  Where you go, I go.”.  Mrs. Straus then turned to her maid, and helped her get into the lifeboat.  She gave the maid her fur coat, saying, “Here, take this, I won’t be needing it.”.  The old couple then stepped away from the lifeboat, and settled into a pair of nearby deck chairs to await the end together.  They were last seen on deck sitting in deck chairs holding hands when a huge wave washed them into the sea. They both died together that night, after more than 40 years of marriage.

These are all people whose stories are well known, whose stories always seem to make it into all the books and movies and tv programs about the Titanic.

But there is one person whose story is often left out of the newspapers, magazines, books, radio shows, films, and television programs.  That man is a Scotsman named John Harper.

Harper was born into a Christian home in 1872 in Houston, Renfrewshire, near Glasgow.  He became a Christian at age 14, and he began to preach at the age of 18, when he would go into the streets of his village to preach the Word of God.  After six years of toiling on street corners preaching the Gospel and working in a mill during the day, Harper came under the care of the Baptist Pioneer Mission in London, who supported him in a ministry in Govan, the ship-building section of Glasgow. This allowed Harper to devote his whole time and energy to the ministry.  As his life unfolded, one thing was apparent about Harper, in that he was consumed by preaching the Word of God.  He had even preached in Belfast, where the Titanic was built.

In 1897, he became the first pastor of Paisley Road Baptist Church in Glasgow.  The church started with just twenty-five members, but had grown to over five hundred members when he left thirteen years later. That church is now known as Harper Memorial Baptist Church.

During his time in Glasgow, Harper married, but he was soon widowed. Though the marriage was brief, the couple were blessed with a beautiful little girl named Nina.

When he boarded the Titanic, Harper was 39, and pastor of Walworth Road Baptist Church in London. He was travelling with 6 year old Nina and his sister-in-law, Jessie Leitch.  He was to preach for several weeks at the Moody Church in Chicago, where he had been guest preacher the previous fall.

As soon as it was apparent that the ship was at some point going to sink, Harper immediately took his daughter and sister-in-law to a lifeboat. He bent down and kissed Nina, then looked into her eyes and told her that she would see him again.

He then ran throughout the doomed ship crying out, “Women, children, and unsaved into the lifeboats!”, and to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!”.  He was warning people of the danger before them, talking to them about the eternal destiny of their souls.

Even as the rear of the huge ship began to slowly lurch upwards, Harper was seen making his way up the deck proclaiming the same message.  Later, when the Titanic began to rumble deep within, most people thought it was an explosion.  But it was actually the gargantuan ship literally breaking in half. At this point, many people jumped off the decks and into the icy, dark waters below. Harper was one of these people.

Harper continued preaching the Gospel to those in the freezing water, admonishing people to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!”.  And when the mighty ship went under, he clung to whatever piece of wreckage he could to continue his sermon.

Harper was seen swimming over to people in the water telling them of the salvation that is found in Jesus alone, and to trust in Him before it was too late.

Harper swam over to one young man who had climbed up on a piece of debris. Harper asked him, “Are you saved?”.

The young man replied that he was not.  Harper then tried to lead him to Christ only to have the young man who was near shock, reply “No”.  Harper then took off his life jacket and threw it to the man and said, “Here then, you need this more than I do!”, and swam away to other people.

A few minutes later, Harper swam back to the young man and this time, the man had come to a point salvation.

Of the 1,528 people that went into the frigid waters that night, six were rescued by the lifeboats.  One of them was this young man on the debris.

Four years later, at a meeting of the survivors of the ship, this young man stood up and in tears recounted how John Harper had led him to Christ.  He stated that after meeting with Harper for the last time, the pastor tried to swim back to help other people, yet because of the intense cold, he had grown too weak to swim.

Harper’s final moments were recounted by this man in these very words.  He said:

“I was drifting alone on a spar that night, when the tide brought Mr. Harper, also on a piece of wreck, near me.  ‘Man,’ he said, ‘Are you saved?’.  ‘No’, I said, ‘I am not.’.  He replied, ‘Believe on 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 on 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.”.

Harper’s last words before going under in the frigid waters were “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved!”.

Does Hollywood remember this heroic man?


But that doesn’t matter.

This servant of God did what he had to do. While other people were trying to save their own lives, John Harper gave up his own life so that others could be saved.

When looking back at Harper, one may think of John 15v13: Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.

And when you look back at all of the extremely wealthy people we’ve mentioned this morning, there’s one verse that should come to mind–  Mark 8v36:  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?

Jesus says in Matthew 19v24 that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.   It is not the fact that a person has riches that keeps them from Heaven, but the fact that riches have them.  Their riches rule them.  It’s just like the rich young ruler who asked Jesus (Luke 18) how he could inherit eternal life.  In the end, the rich young ruler couldn’t do it, because he was too attached to his worldly possessions, and with doing things that are not God’s ways.

Having millions upon millions in your bank account may give you an awesome sense of power.  But what is the true value of these things if in the gaining or having of them you lose your own soul?

To build the Titanic one hundred years ago cost £4.7 million ($7.5 million).  Each of these wealthy men could have bought the Titanic.  In fact, they each could have bought it many times over.

Yet they couldn’t buy a ticket onto a lifeboat to save themselves.  All this wealth could not save them.  It never can.

John Harper was richer than any person on the Titanic.  He already had much more than the world could ever offer.  He showed that he had more wealth than all the rest of them put together.  Harper had eternity.

Think for a moment of the greatest ambition that you have. If you could be anything you wanted to be, if you could have anything you wanted to have, what would that be?  What would you choose?

Now, if in achieving that goal, you lost your own soul, would it be worth it?

And if you did indeed gain the whole world, how long do you think you could hold on to it?  How long could you enjoy it?  Fifty years?

What Jesus was talking about was eternity.  “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”.  That’s eternal.  The gaining of the world is only for a very short time.  The pleasures of this world are always limited, they all have definite time limitations.  But a walk with God is forever.  And it can start here on Earth, just as we see with John Harper.

So, again, if you could have anything that you wanted, if you could have anything you desired, absolutely anything, what would it be?

If you were able to achieve or to attain that wish, that desire, but it cost you your soul, what would it profit you?  What would it profit you if you gained the whole world, but you lost your own soul?  Is it worth the cost?

Of course it’s not.

So if trading the biggest thing you can imagine or wish for isn’t worth exchanging that for your soul–  then what about the little things?  What about the little things that you think and say and do that keep you from the treasures of the Kingdom?  Are they worth exchanging for what God has for you?

Turn in your Bibles to Mark 8v34-37.  In my Bible, this section is headed, “Take Up the Cross and Follow Him”:

34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
36 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?
37 Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

If we are going to live “the abundant life” that Jesus promises in John 10v10, it’s not going to be gotten doing things the way the world does them.  It’s not going to be gained by having or pursuing the things of this world.  In fact, in John 10v10, Jesus says “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
The world will steal and kill and destroy that abundant life God promises us if we choose to pursue these things over pursuing the ways of God.  Jesus Himself tells us that if we are to have the abundant life, then we are to deny ourselves, to take up our own crosses.  This is the very opposite of the way of the world.

But it is the only way.

Money and power and pursuing the things of this world will not get us into Heaven any more than these things got Titanic’s wealthy men into lifeboats.  In fact, they will be the very things that will keep us from truly knowing God.  The only way we can get into Heaven is by trusting in Christ, who paid for our passage on the Cross.

About Ken Cook

Ken Cook has written 15 post in this blog.

I agree with the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, am married with two sons. I am finishing my Ordination here shortly. I have worked for Carm for a bit more than a Year.

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