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General John Gowans

Scot who became worldwide leader of the Salvation Army;

Born: November 13, 1934; Died: December 8, 2012.

John Gowans, who has, in Salvation Army parlance "been promoted to glory" at the age of 78, was his Army's General, or international leader, from 1999 to 2002, presiding over staff in 126 countries. He took the Christian charity into the 21st century by modernising, perhaps even helping to save an organisation whose officer numbers were dwindling.

With recruitment flagging while western youth was focusing on money or fame, his speech at the Salvation Army's International Millennial Congress in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000 – the largest ever gathering of Salvationists – first hushed, then mesmerised and later stunned delegates. He said the Salvation Army had to cast off its musty image, even its uniforms, and move with the times. "Our mission is saving souls, growing saints and serving suffering humanity." Otherwise, he said, young people would enlist in other armies – the ones with guns.

His predecessor as General, Paul Rader, had first shaken but not overturned the Salvation Army's applecart during the last few years of the 20th century. With the sensation of a new millennium, Gowans had the opportunity at least to attempt to make Rader's vision a reality. As a result, the Sally Army still exists. Some may mock it publicly as something of an anachronism but most of us respect and admire it.

It was Gowans, although himself usually dressed in the traditional dark-navy-almost-black uniform, who encouraged young recruits to dress more casually, perhaps in tee-shirts and jeans, but always with the famous S logo prominent. He also said women officers need not necessarily wear the old straw bonnets, which tended to make the Salvation Army look out of touch. He emphasised the need for poly-learning among young Army recruits – not just the Bible but history, philosophy and, not least, languages. He believed all Salvation Army officers should not only serve abroad but become fluent in at least one language other than their own.

He also wrote or co-wrote more than 200 Christian songs, many of which featured in 10 musical productions jointly written with John Larsson, who would succeed him as Salvation Army General in 2002. Their songs, backed by tambourines, can be heard in any Salvation Army meeting hall or on streets around the world.

John Gowans was born in Blantyre, the third of five children of parents dedicated to the Salvation Army. He spent most his school years at Halesowen Grammar School (now known as Earls) in the West Midlands. On turning 18 he did his national service, first with the Army Catering Corps and later with the Educational Corps, much of the time in West Germany. Back in the UK in 1954, he entered the Salvation Army International Training College in what was called the Soulwinner's Session. There he met his wife Gisèle Bonhotal, a French nurse whose parents had also been lifelong Salvation Army officers, including during the Second World War. They married in 1957.

Thereafter, husband and wife served as corps officers, first in the UK, later in the US, France, Australia and back in the UK where his title (including in the Republic of Ireland) was territorial commander; his wife was world president of the Army's Women's Organisations.

A natural writer who realised the importance of music on the human psyche, he teamed up with fellow Salvation Army officer John Larsson to write 10 Christian musicals, including Take-Over Bid (1967), Hosea (1969), Jesus Folk (1972), Spirit (1973), Glory (1975), White Rose (1977), The Blood Of The Lamb (1978), Son Of Man (1983), Man Mark II (1985), and The Meeting (1990). He also wrote three books of prayer poems under the title of O Lord! and an autobiography, There's a Boy Here ...

"John will be remembered for the unique, colourful and larger-than-life personality that he was," said John Larsson, who took over as Salvation Army General from Gen Gowans in 2002. "When God made John Gowans he threw away the mould. Into the gift-mix of this original he poured the potential of an unconventional thinker, an arresting speaker and a charismatic leader. He added the dynamism of a man of action and the creativity of a poet, the ruggedness of an Elijah and the spiritual sensitivity of a John the Beloved. And he topped it all with a large dollop of humanity."

Gen Gowans was a deep believer in the Salvation Army's 11 doctrines but in his later years was wont to emphasise Doctrine Number Two, which he felt showed that religions, notably Christianity and Islam, were not at odds but at one: in the words of the Salvation Army doctrine, "We believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things ..." That is not far off the words of the Koran.

John Gowans died in a nursing home in South London. He is survived by Gisèle, their sons John-Marc and Christophe and four grandchildren.

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