John Harper

Caring about those in danger – the Titanic disaster

Other themes: sacrifice, generosity, Easter

The Problem

Listen to this. What would you do in this situation?

Colin wasn’t surprised when it happened. His best mate Billy had been looking pale since lunch. So as soon as Billy put his hands to his mouth Colin was shouting down the coach, “Mrs James, Billy’s being sick.”

Mrs James got there with the sickbag just in time. Colin watched it fill up with a mixture of horror and relief. What a time for it to happen though, he thought, Billy’s going to miss the fun. It was the last night of the residential school trip and they were going to be in a big fun pool with flumes and chutes. It’d be great, surrounded by their mates – Colin couldn’t wait to show off a bit.

He saw Mrs James in the hostel corridor after tea. “Is he okay now?”

“Far from it, I’m afraid. Good for him we’re going home tomorrow. Oh, Colin, he’s asked if you could stay with him this evening. He said your awful jokes were the only things that would cheer him up.”

“But…it’s the swimming tonight.”

“Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know. Anyway, think about it. There’ll be a couple of teachers here, so don’t feel you have to.”

Then she smiled and turned away, leaving Colin biting his lip in the corridor.

Now think:

What should Colin do? What if he stays back and Billy just falls asleep? But they are best friends…

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

It’s hard to give something up. But I want to tell you about someone who gave up far more than one evening, and for someone he didn’t even know.

As they reached the bottom of the ship’s gangway, it would be impossible to say who was the more excited – John Harper or his six-year-old daughter, Nan – for neither of them had experienced anything like this. They were about to board the largest, the most luxurious ship ever built, the ship everyone had been talking about. It was the first one with a swimming pool, and there were Turkish baths, even four-poster beds on board – and fantastic meals to look forward to.

John Harper was a church minister from Scotland. He’d now been invited to preach in the States. And this marvellous ship was sailing to New York on just the right day. What an opportunity!

But the great thing about this shop was its safety – the hull was divided into sixteen watertight compartments. If there was a collision the worst that could happen was that one compartment, or two at the most, would be cracked open. But the ship could still float if four were smashed. In fact, the ship was nicknamed “The Unsinkable”. Its real name was impressive too – it meant mighty and enormous. It was called…the Titanic.

Midday, April 10th, 1912. The tugs began pulling the ship away from Southampton docks. Soon, under its own steam, the Titanic was surging majestically toward the open sea. The great adventure had begun!

What no-one on board knew was that a huge chain of icebergs was lying across their path to New York. And only a few officers knew two other facts – that the binoculars used for spotting icebergs had gone missing from the crow’s nest, the lookout point, and that there were only enough lifeboats for one thousand two hundred people. There were over two thousand two hundred on board.

John and Nan were having a wonderful time. John had always enjoyed the water, even though he had come close to drowning not once, not twice, but three times: first when he fell down a well when he was two – his mother had to hold him upside down while the water poured out; then in his twenties: while taking a dip a strong current almost dragged him out to sea; then in his thirties a boat he was on sprung a leak. Perhaps these events were to prepare him for what was to come.

John had become a Christian when he was thirteen by hearing a Bible verse, John 3:16 – perhaps you know it – “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son”. So John understood straightaway that the Christian life was about giving – God gave, now he should give. And he did, giving time, energy and love to the poor and needy around Glasgow. He became a famous preacher too.

He had been in America before, but not with Nan. They were over halfway there now.

Almost midnight on April 14th. The men in the crow’s nest were finding it difficult to see. There was no moon and the binoculars had not been found. There – was that an iceberg ahead? Yes! “Hard a’starboard!” Yes…yes, just made it. Lumps of ice fell on the decks as the ship brushed past. Phew! That was a close one! Then came a crunching, grinding sound from below. The ship seemed to be trembling as if in fear or pain. For ten seconds, that was all.

But in those ten seconds the part of the iceberg they couldn’t see had smashed open six of the watertight compartments.


More than two. More than four.

The Titanic was doomed.

There came a knock on John’s cabin door, on every door. “Put your life-jackets on. Go to Boat Deck.” When he and Nan got there, he saw the crew hurrying to take the covers off the lifeboats. Then the boats were lowered and the cry went out: “Women and children first!” John hugged his daughter and made sure she got into a lifeboat. Nan did not know that was the last time she would see her father.

Now the third class passengers, with much further to come, began crowding onto the deck. And then the panic began. People could see the Titanic was going down quickly, could see that there weren’t enough lifeboats for them all.

John saw that many of them did not even have a life-jacket. He knew what God wanted him to do. He took off his own and gave it to a stranger. He knew he was probably giving his life as well.

Waves were washing over the deck now and the ship was tilting more and more. John had no choice. Like many others, he clambered onto the railings and dropped into the freezing sea.

As he entered the water perhaps he remembered the three times he had been rescued from drowning. But he knew this was different. Around him he could hear screams, cries of despair. And he thought, Do they know about heaven? He bagan calling out, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be safe for ever.” A man desperately clinging to a piece of wreckage heard those words and remembered them. John went on shouting the same words. Until the cold overpowered him and he slipped beneath the waves.

1502 people died that night. But that man clinging to the wreckage was picked up by a rescue boat and later told how he had become a Christian through John’s last words.

And Nan? She was rescued, returned to Scotland and eventually married a church minister.

But what about the person to whom John gave his life-jacket – and his life? We’ve no idea. But John knew that he was doing what God wanted him to do, and for him that would have been enough.

Time of Reflection

Think now. God wants us to be not just takers but givers too. Probably we won’t be asked to give our life for someone, but would we be willing to give an afternoon or an evening, to help someone, to cheer someone up? Or perhaps we own something that someone else needs more than us. Are we givers or just takers? Let’s think about ourselves for a moment…

Now let’s think of those who’ve given so much to us, families, friends, strangers.

Bible Bits

Listen to what the Bible says:

“Look out for one another’s interests, not just for your own. The attitude you should have is the one that Jesus Christ had.” (Philippians 2:4,5)

“Be generous and ready to share with others.” (1 Timothy 6:18)


Thank you, Jesus, that you gave your life. You could have called on angels to get you down from the cross, but you didn’t. Thank you for John Harper. And thank you for those who have seen what we need and have given it to us. Help us to appreciate more, and to give more. Amen

Variations on a Theme

At some point near the end of the assembly, it could be effective if several pupils told of times when someone gave up something for them. Aim for a wide range of “sacrifices” – the mundane to the vitally important, and a wide range of “givers” too – not just the children’s best friends.

Alternatively, if the time is right, the Harper story could lead into the story of the crucifixion and the events leading up to it. The episode of Jesus praying in Gethsemane brings out the idea of willingness no matter what the cost.

Gladys Aylward

Going the extra mile – bringing God’s love to China

Other themes:

generosity, faith

The Problem

Listen to this. What advice would you give to the girl in this story?

The local free newspaper was on the mat when Vicky came in from school so she began to turn over the pages as she walked into the lounge. Dad, home early from work on a Friday, was asleep in the chair. Mum would be in soon with the shopping.

The paper was all ads, garden centres, restaurants, nothing that interested her. But – what was this? Suddenly she was absorbed in an article about an orphanage in a country in Eastern Europe, a country that seemed to lack every luxury and even a few necessities. A big truck was going to the orphanage from the town the next week. Readers were asked to make up packages of sweets or cheap toys to give to the children. It would be the first sweets the children would have had in a long time. Soap and toothpaste were also wanted.

“Look at this, Dad. Couldn’t we give something? I was thinking about the money I got from Uncle Bob for weeding his garden, I could get a lot of sweets with that. And you could –“

“Hey, wait a minute, Vicky,” said Dad, stretching. “Don’t get carried away. I’m not going out and buying stuff just like that. Anyway we all put money in that charity tin last week. And you had that day at school when you needn’t wear school uniform if you took 50p, and the money went to Africa, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but those things weren’t my ideas, I sort of did it because it was expected. But this is my idea. I want to do it.”

“No, Vicky, just forget it. You’ve done your bit. Let others do theirs. And just think what you could buy yourself with the money. You worked hard. You deserve something nice.”

Vicky sighed. Yeah, she could think of lots of things she’d like to get for herself. But was it fair when she had so much and they had so little?

Now think:

Has Vicky done her bit? Shouldn’t she just enjoy her hard earned money and forget about the orphanage?

(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)

The Story

Keep Vicky’s idea in mind, that she wanted to do something that she’d thought of, not her parents or her school, while I read you this true story. It’s about feet – oh, and a bloodstained axe.

Am I bowing low enough? she wondered. After all, he was the High and Mighty Mandarin of Yangcheng, the ruler of that entire district of China.

And she was just Gladys Aylward, an ordinary girl who’d become a missionary, who ran an inn in the town so she could tell the travellers stories of Jesus after the evening meal. She hadn’t expected to be called into the presence of the Mandarin. What could he want? He began to speak. Gladys straightened up and listened intently.

“You know, I presume, about our ancient custom of footbinding? Baby girls have their feet tightly bound in bandages to keep them small and dainty. Now the Government has given an order. This is to stop. I imagine you know of a number of foreign women with unbound feet. Please find one who will tour the villages, making sure the new rule is known. The pay is small, but I will provide guards and a mule.”

Gladys thought hard. A woman? To travel to lonely mountain villages on a mule? Who would want such a job?

But she did not speak these thoughts – the Mandarin would not listen to excuses or objections. He was the High and Mighty Mandarin of Yangcheng.

Several weeks later she was called into his presence again. He was not pleased with Gladys’s news. “What? You have found no one? Then,” said the Mandarin, gazing at Gladys, “you must do it. Start tomorrow.”

And that was it. Later Gladys began to see the funny side of it. How incredible! From being a simple maid in a London household to being the Mandarin’s personally appointed Inspector of Feet. What a grand title! She wiggled her toes inside her size threes and laughed and laughed.

And she really enjoyed the job. It wasn’t just the mountain scenery as the mule clambered up over the jagged ridges, the paths edged with wild roses, the wheat blowing in the terraced fields; it wasn’t just the welcome they received from the village women pleased that the law had been changed; it was also the delight on the faces of the babies and young girls as the crippling bandages came off. Gladys would straighten the toes which were bent right back under the foot and massage them.

Then she would gather the villagers together in the square and tell them the same stories she told in the inn – Jesus stopping for water at a village well, the parable of the Sower, stories of a hard country life like their own.

One day between mule tours, she had a message from the prison governor in Yangcheng. “Come at once. A riot has broken out.” So why call on me? was the question in her mind as she hurried through the streets.

The governor met her outside the entrance. “It is too dangerous for me to go in there,” he said, “but you have a God who protects you. You keep telling us that. So you will be all right.”

The gate was unlocked and Gladys was pushed in. She gaped at the awful sight. There were large cages round a paved courtyard. The prisoners had broken out of the cages and were attacking each other like wild animals. One was running around with a bloodstained axe, swinging it wildly.

Then they noticed her. The man with the axe started towards her. “Give me the axe!” Gladys cried out. She didn’t know what to say, there’d hardly been time to think or pray. The man stopped, gazed at her, then…calmly handed her the axe.

It was as if the prisoners all came to their senses at that moment. They stood still, their heads hung in horror and same. She saw how thin and uncared for they were. They had been treated like animals for so long, that they’d started acting like them. She talked to them. They told her they had nothing to do but sit in the cages.

The governor was thrilled she’d stopped the riot, not so thrilled when she told him sternly, “You must change the way you run the prison. You are being unfair. These men may be prisoners but they are human beings. They need things to do. They need to rebuild their lives.” And she arranged for some of the prisoners to learn weaving, some to grind grain, some to breed rabbits.

Twice now Gladys had been pushed into making life better, fairer for people, first the young girls, then the prisoners.

So, later, when war broke out with Japan, and Yangcheng was bombed, and people began fleeing, she could have said, “I’ve done my bit. I must think of myself now.” But she didn’t. She collected up all the homeless children she could find and led them to safety over the mountains. There was no Mandarin or prison governor to push her into doing it. She wanted to do it. It was a long, long journey, most of the time on foot, through dangerous territory. But they made it.

Gladys carried on caring for those who hadn’t got a fair deal in life, right up till she died in 1970. For her it was just following Jesus – hadn’t he cared for those who hadn’t had a fair deal – the lepers, the widows, the sick, the disabled? It wasn’t easy for Gladys, in fact as you’ve heard, it was often dangerous, but when her Lord had gone all the way to the cross out of love, how could she ever say, “I’ve done my bit now”?

Time of Reflection

Think now: do you know anyone who’s not had a fair deal in life? It may be someone you know personally, or you may have read about people in need, or seen them on TV. Is there anything you can do to make their lives better?

Just a moment of silence while we think about this.

Bible Bits

Listen to what the Bible says:

Jesus said “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

“Help to carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

“The Lord Jesus himself said, ‘There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.’” (Acts 20:35)


Father God, I have so much to eat and drink, I have so much fun and enjoyment. Give me eyes to see people in need so I can make things a bit fairer by sharing what I have. Help me to do it because I want to, not because I have to. Amen

Variations on a theme

Pupils could bring in stories cut from newspapers and magazines to show the variety of needs in the world. Contrasts could be made with the abundance we have. The assembly could lead into a charity support idea, but to fit in with the stories here, the initiative should come from the children.

Or pupils could perform the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), or invent short plays based on the “more happiness in giving” verse above.

Quiz Questions

  1. What had been Gladys’s job back in England?
  2. Why had the Mandarin called Gladys into his presence?
  3. What size shoe did she take?
  4. What sort of Bible story did she tell the village people?
  5. Why did the Governor ask her to stop the riot?
  6. One of the prisoners handed her something – what?
  7. What was wrong with the way the prison was being run?
  8. How did Gladys help the prisoners rebuild their lives?
  9. Why was it necessary to take the children away from Yangcheng?
  10. Why did she do so much for needy people?