Special Guest Post by: Alex Carmichael
When you woke up this morning, if this were a hundred years ago, you would have woken up to some potentially unfathomable news, especially if the rumors were true, the news that the Titanic was at the bottom of the ocean. It would have been like Great Britain in 1997, waking up to the news that Princess Diana had died in the wee hours of the morning, only a few short hours before. It would have been a shock to a nation. In fact, the news of the Titanic’s sinking was the 9/11 event of its day. Afterwards, nothing was seen the same way. For what happened to the Titanic, much like it was with the Twin Towers, for such a thing to happen would have been unthinkable.
As “connected” as we are these days, with our phones that can text and send pictures and scour the web for information, news of the Titanic one hundred years ago today was almost instantaneous as well. And that’s because of the Morse code wireless messages that had just come into vogue. As Jack Phillips, the Titanic’s Marconi Operator, was sending out the desperate distress calls, the few ships in the area were picking them up. And at Cape Race, the first wireless station in Newfoundland, Canada, Cape Race had been constantly receiving the personal messages that Phillips was sending, and was now receiving the horrifying news.
These operators at sea relayed the messages from ship to ship, and the Cape Race operator relayed the messages inland. They were picked up atop the New York Times Building in New York City. In Philadelphia, in capitalizing on this new craze of sending wireless messages– think of the great popularity of instant messaging today– a department store had recently set up a wireless office in its storefront window, where their operator had picked up the messages. The world was slowly following this unfolding tragedy.
With this information gathered from the wireless, the New York Times stopped the presses and changed their headlines for their early morning edition of the newspaper. The four line headline just presented the facts as they were known:
NEW LINER TITANIC HITS AN ICEBERG;
SINKING BY THE BOW AT MIDNIGHT;
WOMEN PUT OFF IN LIFEBOATS;
LAST WIRELESS AT 12:27 A.M. BLURRED
For the last edition of their newspaper on April 15, however, the paper’s managing editor played a hunch, and the chance headline read that the Titanic had indeed sunk. It would be a few hours before he would know for sure, but in playing that hunch, the New York Times had scooped every other paper. This one act brought the New York Times to prominence.
Still, other papers ran only with what they knew for certain. The New York Herald’s headline was:
THE NEW TITANIC STRIKES ICEBERG AND CALLS FOR AID
VESSELS RUSH TO HER SIDE
The vice president of the White Star offices in New York City, Philip Franklin, held a news conference the first thing that morning. Having not heard anything of certainty from the Titanic itself– how could he– Philips was confident that everything was fine. He said, “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable.”. In meetings with family and friends of those on board, people like John Astor’s father-in-law and Benjamin Guggenheim’s wife, they were given the same reassurances that were given to the press, that all was well, that everyone was safe, and that there was no cause for alarm.
With such convincing reassurances, and with the ship’s reputation, the headline in the Evening Sun gave voice to what the White Star officials had believed to be true, declaring:
ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION
The White Star Line’s official position all day was the same. They viewed the news from wireless operators who had been passing on the messages as being “second hand”, and therefore not reliable.
But this all changed when the ships that were involved in the actual rescue of the Titanic’s survivors came within wireless range.
So when the official word came in at 6:15 pm, that the great ship had indeed sunk with over 1,500 still on board, it was like a body blow to Franklin. It took him almost an hour before he could meet with reporters. When he did, he just had the strength to say provide one brief sentence: “Gentlemen, I regret to say that the Titanic sank at 2:20 this morning.”.
From that point onward, he would come out intermittently, telling the gathering crowds of people any news that he had received, that there was “probably a number of lives had been lost”, which later became “We very much fear there has been a great loss of life”. And at 9 pm, in uncontrollable tears, Franklin stated it was a “horrible loss of life”.
Every media outlet in America and Britain carried the story– and the world was in disbelief.
To know the full the story of the Titanic’s sinking, of all the things that had to take place for her to have that fateful meeting with an iceberg one hundred years ago, we have to take a step back in time.
As it turns out, 1910 would be seen as a remarkable year in world history. It was the year that the Titanic’s hull was laid, and the world’s biggest and strongest ship, the symbol of the might of the Industrial Revolution, began to take shape. At the same time, two thousand miles away, in the ice fields of Greenland, an armada of ice was being launched. Thousands of icebergs were carving off from the glaciers, and slowly making their way south to the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. One of them would make its way into the same path of the Titanic. By April 1912, the two would converge. The impact of the disaster would reverberate around the world.
But Titanic’s story actually begins well before that, and not even in her being designed and planned in the drafting offices of Harland and Wolff– but thousands of years before that. The story really takes shape 4,000 years ago, in the midst of that vast sheet of glacial ice that would one day be called Greenland, at a time when the Celts were raising the standing stones around Scotland that we can still see today, at a time when Hammurabi was the sixth king of the Babylonian dynasty and was building the first Mesopotamian cities, and at a time when Jacob, the son of Isaac, was born.
The glacier that would one day give birth to thousands of icebergs was halfway to its full size when the first Viking adventurers, setting out in their longboats, would give these things their name. They were huge and impregnable, like vast fortresses. The Vikings called them “isbergs”, “ice mountains”– icebergs.
While empires were being created and destroyed, and while plagues were sweeping across entire continents, the glacial ice would remain undisturbed by worldly affairs, and would continue its gradual procession to the sea. And in 1910, large chunks of the glacier would splinter off, and begin a slow two year migration to the part of the ocean known as the Labrador Current. A record number of over 1,000 of the 40,000 icebergs would survive their journey to the busy shipping lanes, a number that was more than double the yearly average. It was the highest number of icebergs in fifty years to menace the North Atlantic.
Then, at some point in the early weeks of 1912, with a series of deafening cracks, one particular iceberg would break off from its parent glacier, and thunder into the cold waters of the Labrador Current, and began its slow drift southward towards its destiny.
And being neither malevolent nor benevolent, it had no way of knowing that a ten second encounter with another moving object would make it the most notorious iceberg in the history of the world.
And all of this happened in the providence of God.
Humans, of course, have their part to play in this as well. We are responsible for our actions. But that in no way takes anything away from things happening in the providence or will of God. How the will of God and the will of Man interact is something called “Compatibilism”. The two are, as the term states, compatible. Just because something is the will of God doesn’t mean it’s not the will of a person as well. Nothing occurs without it at least having God’s permission to happen.
And man’s role in this matter was spoken of in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Following the Titanic disaster, many a pastor poke of the folly of human pride, the folly of human arrogance, and the folly of man’s faith in material power and prestige– all of which they said lead to 1,502 people losing their lives. In fact, in a sermon given on the Sunday following the disaster, the Bishop of Winchester said that “The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.”.
But if the passengers of the Titanic believed that she was truly unsinkable, it wasn’t because they had believed the hype of anything seen in the White Star Line’s advertisements. And if the builders, owners, and crew of the Titanic were complacent or overconfident, they were just reflecting the attitude and practice of every single ship that sailed the seas. In the forty years prior to the Titanic sinking, only four lives had been lost at sea in the North Atlantic.
The White Star Line and the shipbuilders themselves never claimed the ship was unsinkable, not once did they officially promote the idea of the Titanic as being unsinkable.. I’ve been studying the Titanic since I was a teen, and this is something I’ve looked at in great depth, particularly since entering seminary twenty years ago.
What I’ve come to see is that no matter if neither the White Star Line nor Harland and Wolff ever claimed that the Titanic was “unsinkable”, they also never actually backtracked from it once it was out there. And in doing so, they helped maintain the deadly myth. Even their experienced crew believed it.
Here are some vital bits of information I’ve found in my study of where the idea of the Titanic being unsinkable has come from, and how this myth was perpetuated:
–In 1911, the trade magazine The Shipbuilder called her “unsinkable”.
– In the June 1, 1911 edition of The Belfast Morning News, in an article about the ship as she was being built in the docks of their city, the paper reported that “The captain can, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout, practically making the vessel unsinkable.’’.
–Captain Smith stated in a 1907 New York Times article, when he spoke of another ship he commanded on her maiden voyage, that “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.”
– When Captain Smith was asked in that same newspaper article to describe his experience of nearly forty years at sea, he replied that it was “uneventful”.
–Second Class passenger, Mrs. Albert Caldwell (she and her husband were missionaries to Thailand as teachers in the Bangkok Christian College for Boys), when she came aboard at Southampton, she asked one of the deckhands whether the Titanic was truly unsinkable. He said to her, “Yes, Lady, God Himself could not sink this ship.”
–As the ship was sinking, passengers somehow still believed the hype, even refusing to get into the lifeboats, despite being told that the ship was going down. They clung to their belief that the ship was unsinkable– and were actually offended when officers told them to evacuate, when they had paid such enormous sums of money for luxury accommodation.
–On the deck a great throng of people had gathered. There was initially no panic, and when the order came to fill the lifeboats, women and children first, passengers were still reluctant. One survivor wrote: “They felt that it was safer to stay on the big ship. She could not sink. Consequently, the first lifeboats left the ship half filled with women and children who were practically forced into them. I did not want to trust the lives of my wife and baby to a tiny life boat and be lowered into the ocean, and we, like many others, held back.”.
People had such confidence that this ship was unsinkable. They didn’t question it. In that same Belfast Morning News article of June 1, 1911 just mentioned, written ten months before the Titanic would raise anchor and set sail for New York, there was only one disparaging thing said about the ship. And that was only about the choice of name for her. The paper stated: “It is difficult to understand why the owners and builders named this ship Titanic. The Titans were a mythological race who came to believe they’d conquered nature, who thought they’d achieved power and learning greater than their god, Zeus, to their ultimate ruin. He smote the strong and daring Titans with thunderbolts; and their final abiding place was in some limbo beneath the lowest depths, a sunless abyss below Hades.”.
Yet Eva Hart, one of the last living survivors of the Titanic, she recalled that her mother refused to go to sleep while aboard the ship because her mother, quote, “had this premonition, solely based on the fact that she said to declare a vessel unsinkable was ‘flying in the face of God’”.
“Flying in the face of God”. That, of course, sounds like the story of the Tower of Babel. Or, more correctly, it was a city and a tower, as seen in Genesis 11. This is a story of Man trying to build monuments to themselves, to call attention to their own abilities and their own achievements.
And there was that same kind of human ambition and self-glorification and self-aggrandizement in the building of the Titanic, this floating city on the sea, the feeling that the progress of mankind was “onward and upward forever”. The Titanic was, after all, the symbol of a proud age, a symbol of everything that man had hoped to achieve. And though the society of the day seemed to have some vestige of a knowledge and a respect for God remaining, at least in outward appearances, for the most part, they had really forgotten God, and had revelled in their own abilities, and even taunted God’s awesome power, boasting that “God Himself could not sink this ship!”.
But in God’s providence, the Titanic did sink. And all that was necessary was a few small holes to be opened in the ship’s hull, the damage being less than 12 square feet in size– less than the size of the average doorway into one’s home. It wasn’t some massive 300 foot gash, one major “sin” (if you will) that was her downfall. That incredible discovery provides us a lesson in looking at what we allow into the doorways of our lives, to how letting just a few “small” sins into our lives can bring devastation and disaster. Regardless of how perfect the rest of the “ship” of our lives may be, just one sin can sink us, if it’s left unchecked.
In many ways, the story of the Titanic really aspires to be parable, a tale to warn and instruct us. Throughout the Bible are accounts of proud men who refused to humble themselves and acknowledge God, who built monuments to themselves and their achievements, who trusted in their own abilities, possessions, and self-efforts, rather than in relying on God. The story of the Titanic would fit in rather well with these narratives..
God’s Word also gives us more direct warnings as well. James 4v13-14 says:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”;
14 whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
In much the same way the people of Noah’s day were warned, and in much the same way the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were warned, and just as those on the Titanic were warned about the icebergs and getting into the lifeboats, we are warned about the consequences of complacency and indifference to sin. We’re warned of the cost of living apart from God. But do we heed the warnings? Or do we continue on in comfort and complacency, doing our own thing, bowing to the things of this world and forgetting God?
There’s an old saying in the Church that “It’s not the ship in the water, but the water in the ship that sinks it– just as it’s not the Christian in the world, but the world in the Christian that constitutes the danger.”
Disaster finally struck the Titanic at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, and she sank at 2:20 am on April 15, 1912. One hundred years ago today.
A couple of times in this sermon series, I’ve said that I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of anyone that night. I said that there was a time in my life, before I was married and had children, when I wondered how would I have saved myself if I were in that situation. But that when I had a wife and kids, the question became a more difficult one, as the question became, “What would I have done to save all of us?”.
And I also spoke about what would happen if we found ourselves that night, like the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, families, who found themselves still on board when there was no way to be rescued, when the realization would come that there was no hope. What exactly would I have done if I were in their shoes? To think of such things, of having to deal with this plight isn’t something I ever like thinking about.
But you know what?
When it comes to the people on board the Titanic, they’re all dead. Every single person who was on board the Titanic that night is now dead. Some have been dead for a hundred years, and one has been dead for less than three years. But they’re all gone now.
One of the most poignant pictures I’ve seen in my study of the Titanic is of a pair of shoes laying on the ocean floor, undisturbed for the past century. The body is gone, but it looks like someone had just been lying there, and the only thing now remaining to show that there was a life there once, is these shoes.
And you know what else?
For all intents and purposes, I am, actually, I am in the shoes of those who were on board the Titanic. We all are. We are all in bodies that will one day die. There will be a day, just like those unfortunate souls on the Titanic, there will be a day when we will all have to say our last goodbyes to our loved ones– and we won’t be ready for it. None of us will. Just like those stranded passengers on the Titanic.
Just before my Dad died nine years ago at the age of 75, he said to me, rather heartbreakingly, “I can’t believe how quickly this has come”. He just looked at me with such great sorrow, with such disbelief.
I didn’t know if he was talking about how quickly he had gone from being able to get out and about so easily, to being housebound. Or if he was talking about how quickly his life had passed by, how quickly the end had come. I rather think it was the latter, that he was having to say goodbye to us, and to his life, so soon.
I don’t like to think about it, but there will be a day when I too will have to say goodbye to my loved ones. And it will be at a time that I won’t be ready for. This happens to all of us, even to my three teenage children. It’s so hard to imagine, but they too, as young and as vibrant and as full of life and hope that they are, they too will one day face that very same thing. Everyone does.
All of us are like everyone on the Titanic– we’re all going to die one day, and not be ready for it. No matter if it’s now or later, it will happen. Every passenger on this ship called Planet Earth will die one day.
But unlike some of the passengers stranded that night, there is hope for us. Jesus Christ demonstrated the supreme act of love in human history, by dying to pay the penalty for sin. He is our hope.
The Bible (II Corinthians 6v2c) tells us, warns us in fact, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”. When God offers us deliverance, it is wise to accept His offer immediately– to not be like those on the Titanic who didn’t take a seat on the lifeboat when given the opportunity, and paid for that wrong decision with their lives.
If this morning, your trust is not in Christ, I would plead with you not to receive this message of the grace of God in vain. You may never have another chance again. Your riches, your strength, your abilities, these cannot save you. They can be taken from you unexpectedly, in a moment’s notice. The only thing that can save us from our sins is Jesus. He is faithful to save those who call on Him.
And if your trust is in Jesus already this morning, I would ask that you live a life of thankfulness for what He has already done for you on the Cross, and tell people of the salvation that is found only in Him, to tell people that for those in Christ, there is no “last goodbyes”. Our job is to point people to the way of salvation, just as John Harper did in those icy waters 100 years ago today.
Let us pray…