he world has changed dramatically in the 86 years since this book was first published. The era of the R.M.S. Titanic is long past, but the tragic tale of the “unsinkable” White Star liner remains the subject of intense public fascination. The Titanic is the most famous and intriguing ship in history, second only to Noah’s Ark. Scholars have observed that the three most popular historical subjects are Jesus Christ, the Civil War, and the Titanic. A recent newspaper account would appear to lend credibility to this claim. According to the story, there are more than 800 Titanic-related books in the public libraries of one Virginia county — all of which were checked out at the time of the article’s publication. Titanimania is with us and there is no indication that it will soon abate.
Historian Wyn Craig Wade concisely summarized the entire tragedy as follows: “In 1912, 1,522 people drowned or froze to death after the palatial liner in which they were sailing was sufficiently mismanaged as to take a nose dive to the bottom of the North Atlantic.”
So what? There have been many great disasters. Some have resulted in a significantly higher death toll and level of damage to property. What explains our national obsession with the Titanic? Why do so few historical events grip the heart in the same way? What is it about this story which seems to mesmerize young boys, make mothers weep, and cause men to ponder their mortality?
One reason for Titanic’s enduring interest is that her story incorporates all the elements of a classic tragedy, contrasting nobility with banality, chivalry with cowardice, and faith with presumption. It is also true that her demise remains shrouded by numerous mysteries and controversies — making her the object of fascination to trivia hounds and amateur detectives. None of this, however, explains the profound impact this ship continues to have on the American psyche.
The fundamental reason for our fascination with the Titanic is that she reminds us in no uncertain terms that there is a living God who intervenes in the affairs of men. It is difficult to even speak of the Titanic without acknowledging the existence of a supernatural presence at work on that fateful evening. Moreover, the events of April 14, 1912, are the closest thing we have to a modern-day Bible story. This is the highly documented, true story of a stupendous catastrophe which cannot be dismissed as the result of random process or mere chance. Everything about Titanic was larger than life: her conception, her launch, her sins, her heroes, and her judgment. She was a disaster of biblical proportions and implications — not merely because of the size of the vessel or the huge loss of life, but because of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
Titanic was the biggest, the brashest, the most magnificent and opulent structure ever to sail. Her passenger list boasted the most famous names in the world: the Guggenheims, Astors, and Strausses — the captains of industry. More than 100,000 people attended her launching. In every respect, she was the ship of dreams. She was the floating embodiment of the new age of scientific optimism, and the international symbol of the century that would finally realize Utopia. If ever there was an event which threatened to rival the tower-building efforts of Nimrod and his mignons, that event was the creation and launch of the Titanic. Less than a half-century had passed since Darwin shocked the world with his theory, but already many believed the evolutionary ascent of man had climaxed, leaving him impenetrable to natural and supernatural forces. Man had finally conquered nature. Titanic’s watertight compartments, her state-of-the-art telegraph system, and her gargantuan size would prove this. Consequently, she did not really need lifeboats, her crew could be strangers to one another, she could skip standard drill procedures, she could attempt travel at excessive speeds through the North Atlantic ice fields, and she could ignore numerous warnings about icebergs — all this with the absolute confidence of Titanic’s invincibility against the forces of nature. After all, “even God himself could not sink this ship.”
The debate still rages over whether or not White Star Line representative Bruce Ismay used his position to influence Captain Smith to travel at excessive speeds in the hope of setting records, thus generating more fame for the company. There is little debate, however, over the fact that many of those associated with Titanic acted with a presumption that gave new meaning to the term arrogance. The children of Babel had proclaimed “Let us build ... and make a name for ourselves.” The promoters and owners of the Titanic seemed to be going even further by directly challenging God to a duel.
God, who does not take kindly to such gross displays of human arrogance, appears to have pronounced judgment on the vessel and everything that was associated with her. The loss of 1,522 people is always a tragedy, but it is only when one examines the facts surrounding the ship’s demise that the far-reaching extent of that judgment manifests. If something could go wrong, it did — and in spades. The list of “if onlys” is seemingly endless: If only they had heeded the iceberg warnings; if only there had been enough lifeboats; if only they had not misplaced the binoculars; if only Titanic had not reversed engines; if only the ship in the distance had come; if only the wireless operator had been willing to receive the final message; and on and on. Had any one of these “if onlys” been prevented, the Titanic would be little more than a footnote in history. But Titanic foundered. And with her sank the dreams of an entire generation.
The mathematical probability of all of these circumstances happening in the order in which they occurred is so infinitesimally small as to force even hardened skeptics to acknowledge that the orchestration of these events could not be the product of mere chance. God was making a point.
It is difficult today to truly appreciate the impact this event had on the public psyche in 1912. There really are no modern comparisons. She was the first truly international tragedy. The reports caused men and women on three continents to weep and despair. News of her demise brought the entire Western world to a standstill for a period of days.
In the span of two-and-a-half hours — the length of a Shakespearean tragedy — a human drama was enacted in the North Atlantic which would foreshadow the horror of the most terror-ridden century of the modern world. The dreams and confidence of an entire generation sunk with the great ocean liner. Her very name was destined to become a metaphor for arrogance and doom. Titanic survivor Jack Thayer later wrote that the demise of the White Star vessel was “the event which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but awake with a start ... To my mind the world of today awoke April 15, 1912.” In this respect, Titanic may be, as historian Walter Lord has speculated, the most important news story of the 20th century.
In the years that followed the sinking of the ship, Titanic came to symbolize different things to different groups. Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God’s unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology. The frequent boasts of Titanic’s indestructibility by builders and promoters of the leviathan were viewed as a direct challenge to the Creator.
It is fair to say that the evening of April 14, 1912, was both the darkest and brightest night in modern maritime history. Where the sin of human presumption abounded, the grace of God abounded all the more. Consequently, many Christians took solace in the profoundly moving examples of courage and bold manhood represented by those men who faithfully honored the command “women and children first.” With only a few exceptions, Titanic’s men willingly gave up their seats on lifeboats for others, thus exemplifying the verse, “Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for another.” The most poignant examples came from the many incidents in which families were split up. Husbands literally looked into the eyes of their wives and children, whispered tender last words, and lowered their families into lifeboats with the full realization that they would never see them again. Thus, one of Titanic’s greatest ironies is that she became a symbol of duty and faith.
Nellie Taft, the First Lady, honored this spirit of sacrifice by mounting a national campaign to raise funds for a monument which would carry the inscription: “To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” The structure was built in Washington, D.C., using the one-dollar donations of American housewives. Mrs. Taft explained, “I am grateful to do this in gratitude to the chivalry of American manhood.”
The suffragettes of 1912 had another opinion. To them the Titanic was a symbol of patriarchal oppression. The philosophy that man should be protector and defender of womankind was a fundamental impediment to their cause. They resented the fact that the suffragette movement was criticized by newspapers which ran articles asking questions like “boats or votes?” Consequently, feminists argued that the policy “women and children first” (which led to a death ratio of nine men for every one woman on the Titanic) was little more than a patriarchal sentiment that hid an agenda of suppression. Leading suffragettes actually argued that Titanic women were wrong to have accepted seats on the boats from men.
Since the discovery of the Titanic 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in 1985, a spate of revisionist histories have been published which criticize the Titanic’s captain, E.J. Smith, and his crew for executing the order “women and children first.” Numerous books have been written which minimize the bold sacrifice of the men. Some even mock those who attempt to draw broader meaning or spiritual lessons from the tragedy. A few appear to deliberately reinterpret events in such a manner that all references to faith and God are removed. Still other authors have revised the story of the Titanic to accommodate neo-Marxian class warfare theory: rich vs. poor. These approaches miss the mark. The true story is far more complex, more tragic, and more beautiful.
As we enter a new millennium and the challenges of the 21st century, the true lessons of the Titanic stand, both as a warning against misplaced faith and human arrogance, and as an affirmation of the age-old principles of duty, sacrifice, and love. If the story of the Titanic is more than a mere compilation of interesting facts and details — and it is — if her lessons speak to transcendent truths — and they do — then we must be willing to remember the great ship for what she truly was — a reminder that man may plan his ways, but it is God who directs our steps.
In 1996, a boat carrying thousands of passengers sank off the shores of Indonesia. Like the Titanic disaster, hundreds died. Like the Titanic disaster, the ship was inadequately suited with lifeboats. Unlike the Titanic disaster, the men received preferential lifeboat treatment over the women and children. Women died that men might live.
Such a perversion of the natural order is the inevitable consequence of a culture which rejects the atonement of Jesus Christ as a central ordering principle for society. For one thousand years, this principle has guided Western civilization. Simply stated, that principle is this: the groom dies for the bride, the strong suffer for the weak, and the highest expression of love is to give one’s life for another. The men aboard the Titanic recognized their duty because they had been raised in a culture that implicitly embraced such notions. Only by returning to these foundations can we ever hope to live in a society in which men will make the self-conscious decision to die so that women and children may live. This is the true legacy of the Titanic.
The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters accurately presents this story, the true story of the Titanic. It was the first book to bring the details of Titanic’s demise to the public. Moreover, this is the story as told by people who knew — the survivors. It has been republished in the hope that the lessons and legacy of the Titanic will never be forgotten.
Douglas W. Phillips
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
FROM THE SECOND PRINTING OF
THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC
AND GREAT SEA DISASTERS
PUBLISHED BY THE VISION FORUM, INC.
R E T U R N T O R E A D A B L E S