on the corner “A tribute to John”

By Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief

John Gowans’ contributions to The Salvation Army are of such significance, I believe, that picking one or two is impossible. Regardless, his relationship with all of us held such intensity and authority that no one with him for more than a minute left him without feeling the power of the moment.

Some contributions were more significant than others. His greatest was in choosing Gisele—who always supported him and played important roles in his ministry—to be his wife. Another important gift to The Salvation Army is his succinct, memorable, and remarkable translation of our ethic:


The Salvation Army exists:

To save souls

To grow saints

To serve suffering humanity


In other words, this unique ethic, explained simply with Gowans’ words, seeks to establish a complete, whole, full, total relationship with seeking individuals and facilitates spiritual renewal through belief and faith in Christ. It is both an articulation of our mission statement and a summary of Booth’s Cabhorse Charter. Our relationship is based on the whole person. Let me reprise my perception of that cabhorse charter and its relationship to the Army today. Remember, cabs moved with genuine horsepower in Booth’s day.

When a London cabhorse breaks down, we first stand it up. Then we minister to it in a caring and compassionate manner until it is fully able to return to duty. Then, we put the horse back to work.­

Humans manifest many different types of “break-downs.” When the human animal breaks down, we relate spiritually down through the expression of non-judgmental Christian love; second, we maintain that help by modeling values that parallel Christ; and third, we explore mankind’s search for God. And when that person expresses a desire to help others, we put them to work.

First, we start by picking up the pieces where the need is greatest. This may be from addiction; possibly, it’s ministry through the grief process; possibly, it’s some of many different types of social assistance— health, hunger, housing; often, it’s developmental. Always, it’s non-judgemental.

Second, we insert spiritual modeling along the way, and at the right time, lead them to Christ. This is the soul-saving element. It doesn’t stand alone. It continues for the duration of our relationship. Third, we stimulate Christian growth through increased understanding of God’s Word and showing love to others.

General Gowans presented this simplification of our mission in Atlanta in 2000 at the Army’s Seventh International Congress. The empty stage consumed considerable space in the middle of the large athletic arena surrounded by 20,000 Salvationists. A long, curving ramp led up to the stage. He mounted it slowly, carrying a three legged stool, and when he got to center stage he sat on it. He then began to explore what might happen if one or two legs were removed. The stool, now without balanced support, would not hold him and would collapse.

Gowans related that stool to the Army. It stands firmly on three legs as does the Army on the three points within a single mission: (1) winning souls for Christ; (2) facilitating their spiritual growth through the working of the Holy Spirit; and (3) rescuing people from the distress of social collapse. That’s what we are: all three together, inseparable.

For me, remembering John Gowans presents conflicting emotions of pleasure and loss. The meager personal memories of close individual contact I have assembled over too short a time period pour in rapidly. The power of his preaching or teaching stirred me deeply. He always seemed to be aiming just at me.

He had the greatest laugh I’ve ever heard—often a product of his own humor, yet entirely unassuming. There was nothing small or soft about it. It was rich and full, nothing fake about it. He laughed at that which was funny. I never heard him tell a joke or diminish people with his humor.

He also wrote the book and lyrics for 10-plus Army musicals with fellow officer, John Larsson, who wrote the music. Many of those lyrics have found their way into The Salvation Army Song Book.

Musical drama was a great departure for the Army in the mid 1960’s when Britain’s National Youth Secretary Denis Hunter almost forced these two creative captains to write something like an Army “Guys and Dolls” for an International Youth Festival while still leading significant corps in the British Territory. Some months later, “Take Over Bid” appeared and became an immediate success in Britain and around the world.

His musicals provided a creative, often humorous, always mission-focused means to communicate the Army ethos and ethic to the general public.

I see him as an actor, writer, director, producer on a stage named “life.” By that, I mean he achieved goals, tried new ideas, related to people by walking with them. He was always in thoughtful, dedicated action. But, he was more than an actor. He was real, authentic, genuine, a complete whole, a leader—a “what you see is what you get kind of guy.”

He inspired me.

I can’t describe the feeling. I know I felt the strength of the man I perceived as the most dramatic Army change agent in generations. His charisma washed over people with gentle genuineness, wisdom and warmth. He seemed almost unaware of this gracious generosity.

He listened and was genuinely interested in the ideas of others. His analysis of the quality of the ideas was always thoughtful, pointed, precise as well as kind and considerate. He was open to the ideas and thinking of others, but always focused on why we exist as an organization.

He was always “others” oriented. People mattered most to John. We celebrate his life as he goes on to Glory.

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