Gowans shines as storyteller
by Judy Vaughn –
General John Gowans—poet, showman, divisional and territorial leader over many years and lately retired leader of the Salvation Army’s forces in 107 countries—played a role he possibly savors best of all at Crestmont College’s recent Heritage Conference—that of storyteller.
Exploring the Salvation Army’s story, seeking practical ways to preserve it for future generations and couching it in the context of larger societal forces were the major focus of the conference.
For his address to delegates and cadets, the General crafted a story of the three great Catherines in Salvation Army history: Catherine Booth, feisty and enormously influential wife of the founder; their first daughter Catherine, known as “La Marechale,” who planted the Army flag in France and Switzerland; and finally, granddaughter Commissioner Catherine Bramwell Booth, who in the last years before her death at age 104, was testifying to her faith on British Broadcasting Company and through the popular mass media.
Gowans selected colorful stories and a chorus of rhetorical questions to describe the three women. . .Would the first Catherine have been disappointed in how long it’s taken for women to achieve administrative appointments of significance? What would she say to young women going into the work today?
Although the first Catherine’s language was Victorian, he said, she presented a “bang-on, up-to-date image. She was vivid in her image and courageous in her substance.” If we are a temperance church, he reminded the audience, it is because of Catherine. She decided “and then talked the old man into it.” She was a persuasive and indefatigable speaker. In one campaign she literally gave 17 separate sermons on the same text, “Go work today in my vineyard.”
Catherine’s admonition to those who followed her was blunt. She worried that women wouldn’t reach their potential. Gowans called upon cadets to study her sermons which are on the library shelves of “this fine institution.” “Don’t expect a pleasant afternoon of it,” he warned. “She’ll make you think!”
Think pink. That may be the way some in the audience will now remember the second Catherine, an electrifying preacher who after a full life of service and ten children, as if to exert her independence, defiantly said, “I’ve worn navy blue all my life. Now, if I want, I shall wear pink.” Gowans spoke of the “terrifying tension” in her life and later attempt to reconcile with her father. Using the young Adelaide Cox as an example, he opened discussion about the independent, well-bred women, often daughters of Anglican preachers, who also joined the Army in the early years.
Finally, the woman who had been in charge of Salvation Army social services in Britain when she was a Commissioner, Catherine Bramwell Booth in her later years became a TV personality and outspoken chat show guest. After retirement she had gone through a period of depression, feeling no longer useful. At 90, she started a remarkable new career as preacher and Army spokesperson.
In the audience were retired officers and women who have given decades of their lives to the Salvation Army seated next to cadets just beginning the work. What was the impact of the earlier women’s lives on the newest soldiers? One cadet’s response was ingenuous. “The General has given women permission to be strong. I’m going for it!”