A New Frontier Special Feature “John Gowans_ Remembering the 16th General of The Salvation Army”
By James Knaggs, Commissioner
Imagine the homecoming in heaven on the day General John Gowans arrived. It must have been amazing. Like the crossing of a marathon finish line or the moment when someone receives a diploma, or perhaps the moment when the person you’re praying with at the mercy seat accepts the love of God for the salvation of his or her soul. I see fireworks, dancing, banners, confetti and more as everyone from the Lord to the Founder, William Booth, along with children and senior saints express excitement that John Gowans is in the glory parade.
Who is this man of God with the dynamic, creative edge that captivated persons and crowds of all cultures and backgrounds? He is legendary. Controversial yet compassionate, imaginative and inspirational, extraordinary and extravagant, divinely discerning and humanly holy. He is my friend as he is a leader with distinction.
Shall we be like him? I don’t doubt that he would say, “don’t do it.” And he would be right, as there is the one and only John Gowans. He would bid us be like Jesus. That’s what he was doing, and showing. He demonstrated that it’s absolutely possible “to be like Jesus.” We can even do it in the context of our own lives, just like John.
The homecoming in heaven for General John Gowans has just begun. It will go on forever. Whatever hope that rascal, Satan, had for claiming his soul for evil, was lost long ago on the cross of Calvary. We should plan to join the parade some day, just like John. It will be our joy if we’re just like Jesus.
Thank you Lord, for our General John Gowans.
Tribute to General John Gowans
By Linda Bond, General
What an honor it is to pay tribute to an exceptional leader whom I came to deeply respect!
Several times in my travels I have told the story of Hazel, a Salvationist whose testimony I heard in Australia. Her plans to commit suicide were frustrated at every turn. Falling in tears on her bed, she woke in the morning to find herself on the floor with her head resting on the bed. Reaching out to the bedside cabinet for a tissue her hand touched her Salvation Army song book. She pulled it down, and it opened at Song 238.
“Do you sometimes feel that
no one really knows you,
And that no one understands
or really cares?
Through his people, God
himself is close beside you,
And through them he plans
to answer all your prayers.
Someone cares, someone
Someone knows your deepest
need, your burden shares;
Someone cares, someone
God himself will hear the
whisper of your prayers.”
There on her knees she prayed to God for forgiveness and, believing he saved her for a purpose, handed her life totally to him. The Lord used that song [by Gowans] as the turning point. She not only lives but lives abundantly with a ministry that is making a difference to a whole community.
Several books could be written on how John Gowans impacted individuals through his songs, poems, preaching and personal engagement. I want to thank God for the man he used to such a high degree to influence The Salvation Army.
There is nowhere I have traveled that his missional statement—saving souls, growing saints, serving suffering humanity—is not woven into the fabric of the territory. It was not a new mission direction but a brilliant yet simple restatement that captured our essence and purpose. And if ever we thought that they were three missions assigned to specific Army groupings, he dispelled that at the International Congress in Atlanta with his imagery of the three-legged stool. Ours is not only a balanced mission but an integrated one. This was not just the poet at work with clever words, this was the seasoned Salvationist whose grasp of God’s mandate, Army history and experience reminded us of our essential calling.
Like Charles Wesley, John Gowans had a gift for communicating the deep things of God, sound theology, in a language that we could all understand. But even more than this, he called us to a fresh perspective on what we believe. How easy it is for any church to slip into a rules and regulation mode and convince itself that God shouts from a distance with displeasure at our weakness. Yet John saw him differently: “Ours is not a distant God, remote unfeeling.”
Human vulnerability was never denied, nor failure excused. His theology rose from our own statements of faith that call us to a Lord who hears the penitent cry and receives, restores and recommissions.
Who of us has not sung “Knowing my failings, knowing my fears…Jesus, recall me, me re-ordain; You know I love you, use me again” and made it a personal confession and prayer? John Gowans’ understanding of the human condition with its weakness and its high aspirations was expressed with the poignant prayer: “Holy Spirit, promised presence fall on me. Holy Spirit make me all I long to be.” This was no wishful thinking. This was strong faith in an amazing God of grace.
Read the full tribute at salvationarmy.org/thegeneral/tributejohngowans.
Former Generals salute a dynamic leader
I first met John in 1970 when I was vice principal of the International College for Officers in London, having recently come from many years in Zimbabwe. John was a delegate, and I soon discovered his warm, exuberant, fun-loving personality. On the other hand, he was a serious, perceptive officer who challenged many of the lecturers with his unconventional ideas. He loved the Army and was totally sure about God’s call to him to be an officer. He could be critical, though wise, about faults in the Army—its culture, administration and procedures, even its principles. Never was he “politically correct,” nor seeking to protect his reputation. I admired his forthrightness and thought, “That is the kind of gifted young officer the Army needs today.”
So I watched his service in the following years, and saw those same qualities in his increasing leadership positions. We had occasional contact. I heard him preach many times, and what a dynamic preacher! Relevant, challenging, ardent and very human. He never failed to “hit the spot”! His gifts were not only in the spoken word; his writings provided the Army wonderful lyrics in the great musicals written with John Larsson, and those insightful poems. A rich legacy.
He was a charismatic leader, and never more so than in the role of General. He was unafraid to introduce measures for the Army’s benefit, but prepared also to change his mind on occasion. For example, as a young officer, he often proposed short-term officership instead of a life covenant. This shocked many Salvationists. However, when General, he did not change the lifelong covenant, but introduced the idea of short-term warranted lieutenancy. That move was productive later in bringing many young people into full-time officership.
He wanted to give Salvationists, both officers and soldiers, the right to be heard, and encouraged them to speak up (e.g. the Mori Poll for all officers worldwide, both active and retired, to express their views on a number of significant policy questions).
Although never having served in a missionary appointment, he was sensitive to the feelings of our people in the developing territories, and appointed many African and Indian leaders as commissioners.
I have always loved the scene in the musical “Blood of the Lamb” when William Booth enters heaven and comes face to face with the Savior. Then the story moves to all the people the Founder had brought to the Lord through his powerful life and service. I can imagine the same scene of rejoicing when John Gowans met his Lord and Savior face to face.
SERVED AS GENERAL 1986-93
Unique is certainly an understatement in reference to the personality and ministry of John Gowans.
From his cadet days to his term as General his officership was marked by creativity and vision. His almost theatrical personality marked his poetry and writings. This was clearly evident in the contemporary musicals of Gowans and Larsson.
Throughout his years of ministry his humor was infectious and so often brought an up-to-the-minute application of God’s Word.
John made an outstanding contribution to the work of the kingdom in general and the Army in particular. We thank God for his life.
I count it a privilege to be numbered among the many friends of John Gowans.
SERVED AS GENERAL 1993-94
General John Gowans was surely one of the most creatively gifted and passionately committed Salvationists ever to heft the Army banner. His transparency, humanity, and unique capacity to articulate the heart of the gospel and the essentials of Salvationism, both in his poetry and preaching, set him apart.
He was a daring leader. He was an Army original who, while totally committed to our mission and appreciative of its classic expression, resisted to the end being trammeled by tradition. There poured from his full heart a lasting legacy of song that will stir the hearts of Salvationists for generations to come.
One day some will ask, “Who was this man who understood us so well—our soul struggles and aspirations and who breathed our hearts’ desires so compellingly?”
“You should have known him,” will come the reply. “John Gowans, Salvationist extraordinaire!”
SERVED AS GENERAL 1994-99
My first contact with John Gowans was when I was drafting the legal constitution for the new European Training College in Basle, Switzerland. The General selected one of three territorial commanders as first chairman of the corporate governing council. Gowans was chosen. I liked his relaxed way with me in those days. He offered encouragement.
The Gowans came to us in Pakistan when Helen and I were the territorial leaders. Gisele was warm and gracious. John was brisk and very focused on the next duty in the schedule. He poured huge energy into preaching and coped well with the impact of being translated into Urdu. Later we welcomed them to the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory during their final overseas tour as our leaders. We were glad they came.
I have been deeply grateful to have verses/music from Gowans/Larsson to use in meetings. The Army has been able to sing truths expressed in modern, accessible language. These songs will live on.
SERVED AS GENERAL 2006-11
BY JOHN LARSSON, GENERAL (Ret.)
Well, you’re one of them now, John. The elder was speaking about you when he answered his own question with those words.
Out of great tribulation
You have come out of great tribulation, John. Gisèle and John-Marc and Christophe and others of us here this afternoon have watched as you have gone through tribulation in recent years. The whole Salvation Army family has been saddened—and thousands have been praying for you, John.
We thank God that you have been at peace in yourself during these years. And though we are now saddened by your leaving and wish you were still with us, we are comforted by the knowledge that you are now free from the earthly limitations of mind and body. The perishable has been clothed with the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:54). And for that we can only thank God.
Now, if the elder asked me that same question—“These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I would say: “Sir, I don’t know them all, but I know the one standing over there just in front of the throne of God. His name is John Gowans, and I know who he is and where he has come from.” And I would tell the elder all about you, John.
I would tell him how loved you were here on earth and how greatly you are already missed. I don’t think you can imagine how many people in the Army world feel a sense of loss at your going. A great crowd of them are here today.
Why we will miss you
I would tell the elder that you are going to be missed for your laughter, John. It symbolizes that cheerfulness and positive attitude that characterized you. Do you remember when you used to come to our home when our two boys were very young? When you laughed out loud they would be so frightened they would go and hide! But their reaction was not typical, let me add—everyone loved you for your laughter. How often when you walked into a room you lifted the spirit of those who were there. The sun came out.
I would tell the elder that you’re going to be missed for your creativity, John. Your songs are sung around the world—and are blessing people, lifting their spirits, and helping them to know God better. And they will be for years and years to come.
I’m going to miss those times we spent together when creative ideas just flowed. Do you remember that day in Cleveland, Ohio, when the musical “Spirit!” was born? We had set the day aside to try to get ideas for a new musical. We were staying in someone’s home. I can still see the sun streaming in. And then the ideas began to flow—and they just kept on flowing. We felt excited as one idea gave birth to another. We laughed—we almost cried.
When talking to audiences about our musicals, you and I have often said that when we arrive in heaven and the Book of Life is opened, we will find that we have influenced more people through our songs than through our main appointments. You have arrived there now, John. Have you had a chance yet to look in the Book of Life? When you do it will warm your heart, of that I am absolutely sure.
I would tell the elder that you’re going to be missed for your courage, John. Do you remember that we followed you as the corps officers of Bromley Temple? Terry Reardon, one of the older saints of the corps, used to say to us with a smile when we visited them: “John Gowans—the breaker up of concrete”—and he would tell us how you had brought new thinking and change to the corps.
You remained a “breaker up of concrete” through the years. When I was your Chief of the Staff, we would be discussing some proposal that was likely to please some but upset others: “Let’s do it!” you would say. You were always ready to break some more concrete.
I suppose you know, John, that many thought you were a prophet but also a bit of a rebel. No sensible High Council would ever elect you to become General, it was said. You were too dangerous—goodness knows where you might take the Army. But the 1999 High Council took the plunge—and what a blessing for the Army that it did.
And you had the courage to be yourself, John. The Army never took you over. The rest of us dutifully wore our caps—but not you! You are going to be missed for your courage.
I would tell the elder that you’re going to be missed for so many other things, John. You are going to be missed for your preaching—that marvelous gift you had for lifting us to the heights, with humor and pathos and drama, and then reaching right into our hearts with your challenge. And you’re going to be missed for your vision for the Army and your passion for mission—you knew where we as an Army should be heading and what as an Army we should be doing.
And I would tell the elder that you are going to be missed most of all for your warmth, for your caring, and for your gift for friendship—for your humanity, John. You were a pioneer hugger! When most settled for a handshake, you didn’t. It spoke volumes. A John Gowans hug symbolized the warmth of your personality.
As your Chief I used to see you spending many hours writing by hand what seemed endless numbers of cards to people you were befriending and counseling—and they loved you for it.
Just this week someone told me that when he was young and worked at territorial headquarters you would sometimes give him a lift home. These journeys lasted an hour, and he told me of the impact your conversations together had on his thinking, his character and his spiritual sensitivity. “Every conversation with John was uplifting,” he said, and then added: “To know him was to love him.” Another emailed from Australia this week and said, “Everyone here thought of him as a personal friend.”
Speaking for myself—I am going to miss you as a creative partner and friend. Do you remember the journey home from Dallas,Texas, where we had recorded you reciting Vachel Lindsay’s poem, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven”? It was a night flight—10 hours or so—and we talked all the way home to London. We probably kept some of the other passengers awake. But it was inspirational!
And of course, the people who will miss you most will be Gisèle and John-Marc and Christophe. To them you were not only a loved husband and a father. You were their best friend.
There is so much I could tell the elder about you, John, and where you have come from—but I can imagine him saying to me “Enough, enough—we will get to know John for ourselves up here—he has already made an impact.” And I can hear you laughing out aloud at that up in heaven.
A white robe
But I am reminded that when the elder asked, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” he himself answered the question in two ways: He said, firstly, that you had come out of great tribulation, and then, secondly, that you had washed your robe and made it white in the blood of the Lamb.
That was your testimony here on earth, John. There was no doubt about it. You had been to Jesus for the cleansing power; you were washed in the blood of the Lamb. We praise God for that.
But what was it like to receive your new white robe in heaven? Was it like Vachel Lindsay describes?
“Jesus came from out the court-house door,
Stretched his hands above the passing poor.
And in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled,
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.”
Is that how it was for you, John? It must have been! The John Gowans we always knew—released from all earthly limitations—standing clad in raiment new in the glorious presence of God.
Never again will you hunger;
never again will you thirst.
The sun will not beat upon you,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be your shepherd:
He will lead you to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear
from your eyes (Rev. 7:16-17).
We are so glad for you, John. Thank you, Lord!
A personal Remembrance
By George Church, Colonel
Much has been written about General John Gowans, but everyone seems to agree that he was certainly not a typical Salvation Army officer!
I met John for the first time 60 years ago while visiting my officer parents in Bielefeld, West Germany, where he was doing his mandatory national service. I was stationed nearby in the Royal Air Force.
To quote from John’s book: “Among the discoveries I made as an 18-year-old lad…was the Red Shield Club for military personnel. It was a beautiful center led by Majors George and Florence Church, whom I learned to know and love.”
John volunteered to assist my mother with teaching Sunday school. Later, he mentioned that it was my parents who backed him for Salvation Army training college in London, and that my mother measured him for his first Salvation Army uniform.
In 1968, while my wife and I were stationed at Los Angeles Congress Hall, John and Gisele visited us and conducted various meetings around the territory. Again John caught our attention with his “flamboyant style of dress” and dynamic preaching that could get across a point in a shorter time than anyone I know. John and Gisele also participated in music camp that year at Mt. Crags and presented the first part of the (then) unfinished musical, “Take Over Bid.”
Most of the musicals were presented by the Southern and Northern California divisions, and John returned several times to participate in productions. He appeared in “Glory” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and “Blood of the Lamb” at the 1980 National Congress in Kansas City.
After the Gowans were appointed to the Western Territory, a new musical was commissioned in 1983, our centennial year. “Son of Man!” was a great success, as well as “Man Mark II,” which premiered at the 1985 International Youth Congress in Macomb, Ill.
We became near neighbors again during one of our sojourns at territorial headquarters and spent many hours on numerous boards—John’s explosive laughter still echoes through the corridors and board rooms of Crestmont.
Commissioner Norman Howe intersperses some personal reflections into Gowans’ poem “Prospects”
O Lord…for my friend John…
Why should I be?
This body’s not imortal,
Not like me!
The fabric must wear out
For sure some day,
I’ll throw the thing away.
There’ll come a time,
This “house” beyond repair,
You’ll find me better
Lodgings, Lord, elsewhere.
I might wish I had fuller information
About the coming life’s accommodation!
But death’s my friend, why greet him with a frown?
He’s only Life dressed in another gown!
The authentic voice of John Gowans! I first heard it in the old Camberwell Citadel on Good Friday 1956—full-throated, enjoying the moment, even then challenging the status quo—as Cadet Sergeant Gowans recited, “O glory of the lighted mind.” It has been resounding in my ears ever since through well over 50 years of close personal friendship. In public he always sounded confident yet never lacking in humanity…
You let some funny people work for You!
And your disciples are a motley crew!
The limited, the damaged and the lame
Do daily wonders in your holy Name.
They’re far from perfect; You don’t seem to mind.
They’re far from worthy and You’re far too kind!
You still prefer, I note with glad surprise,
To use the weak things to confound the wise!
Whilst we value John’s skill with words, his verse (and the musicals which it enlivened) are just a small part of his impact on The Salvation Army. When I traveled the world for him (defending his policies!) again and again I heard the words, “He gave me permission to be myself.” That is the true estimate of his Christian leadership. But if you want to capture the very heart of him…
Please let me be extravagant in what I give or do.
I want to spend my everything and all my time for You.
Not penny-pinching, miserly,
Not keeping strict account;
Investing all I have and then
Forgetting the amount!
If, feeling sorry for myself
I start to count the cost,
Then I shall be the poorer—
What I’ve gained will all be lost.
O Lord when I begin to stray
From dedication’s track,
Remind me of the way You gave
And I’ll hold nothing back!
That’s how he lived…until he had nothing left to give…and all we could do was to care for the husk that remained. Of course there is a price to pay for such intensity, and a darker side known only to the closest family and friend. Underneath there was a deep and continuing vulnerability, a need for reassurance, understanding and affirmation…
Thank You for love,
For it makes sense of life
And gives it meaning.
Without it life is pointless pain and
A Man unloved is not worth very much.
He hobbles through life on a broken crutch.
But when he knows that someone really cares,
He holds himself erect, he acts, he dares!
Thank You for Your love
It brings me hope again;
Makes beaten cripple
Into noble men!
Thank you for loving him, Giselle. And how much loved he was…dear John, General John…this much-loved, most-loved leader…John the Beloved…I love you mate, always have, always will…
Is this the end?
Should I be scared of my friend Death?
No! I’m prepared,
I’m quite at peace,
From fear set free,
Convinced of continuity
In Christ…In Christ…In Christ!
See you soon…Norman
—Commissioner Norman Howe