General John Larsson (Ret.) was world leader of The Salvation Army from 2002 until 2006. It was the culmination of a lifetime of service as a Salvation Army officer given in the United Kingdom, South America, New Zealand and Sweden, as well as in influential appointments at the Army’s international headquarters in London. He is the author of a number of books, a widely published composer of music, and the co-writer of 10 musicals.
'My ministry as a Salvation Army officer has been central to my life for nearly 50 years,' he says, 'but I have not wanted this account of my life to be just an extended version of my officer service record.'
'So in these pages I tell the story of the musicals and my other writings, tell of the precious ones the Lord has given me, and tell of my love for music and yearning for wild nature. I also touch on events in Salvation Army history that I have lived through or with which I am in some way linked.In addition I leave the door ajar to the hinterland of heart, mind and spirit where I find my inspiration, and also share something of the deep convictions which have become the passions of my life.'
'Life for me has been a quest, a continual and often exhilarating exploration that has led to great and often unexpected discoveries along the way.From my earliest days I seem to have grasped intuitively that the key to abundant living is to say yes to God and yes to all that is good in life.If I dare to call this account Saying Yes to Life it is not because I have always succeeded, but because saying yes to life has been my aim.'
Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister when The Salvation Army began in 1878, said: ‘Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’. Anyone wanting to learn about the development of The Salvation Army in the 20th century need not begin with the history books – a better starting point is John Larsson’s autobiography. This multifaceted gem is the story of one man’s life but it is a life that shaped – and was shaped by – The Salvation Army.
The retired General has written a very readable, interesting and inspiring life story. It is not a difficult book to get into but most will find it hard to put down. Each of the 12 chapters is full of good stories, interesting facts and spiritual insight.
Many readers will enjoy the author reminiscing about the ten popular Gowans and Larsson musicals. His anecdotes about the musicals are enjoyable and engaging, and there is also much new information about the writing of these musicals.
I think this book will interest readers from at least two angles. In the preface General Larsson says a main purpose for writing this book ‘is to give praise and thanks to God for the blessings that have been mine’. His is a powerful, inspiring testimony. I was particularly moved by the account of his spiritual experiences when a child; his calling to officership in his teens; and the importance of his wife, Freda, their sons and the extended family. The couple’s regular physical fitness routine has kept them healthy despite nearly 50 years of demanding ministry.
But unlike some Army biographies, John Larsson also writes about tough experiences. He recalls a dark, depressing moment as a corps officer; his long, spiritual search after the fullness of the Spirit; the turbulent times as UK Territorial Commander in 1993.
As I said earlier, this book also provides important insights on 20th century Army history. These come through in his autobiography for a number of reasons. First, he was born into a remarkable family. The Larsson name was already writ deep into Army history before John was born in April 1938. His father and grandfather were Salvation Army commissioners as was his maternal grandfather. John’s mother was a prolific writer who, he says, had a ‘zest and originality of thinking’.
John Larsson is therefore able to tell his family story while including nuggets of Salvation Army history from Scandinavia, Russia, China, South America, Europe and relations with IHQ. There were several occasions when I wished that detailed footnotes had been provided to give more information about fascinating historical events.
Secondly, I was intrigued to learn about the number of times Army leaders appointed John Larsson to tackle tricky tasks. Has there been another Army leader since Bramwell Booth who was so trusted by his superiors to find solutions to so many critical organisational issues? For example, he redrafted the text of the articles of war before it was renamed The Soldier’s Covenant; chaired the group that reviewed the handbook Salvation Army Ceremonies; directed the International Congress in London in 1990; masterminded the creation of the UK Territory and the split with IHQ.
Thirdly, John Larsson helped many Salvationists benefit from the moving of the Holy Spirit in the wider Church. I noted three examples. He was aware of the growth of charismatic influences in the 1970s. Unlike some Salvationists, he did not close his mind and heart but longed to understand and benefit from every blessing of the Holy Spirit. As part of his quest he wrote The Brengle Experience but, he reveals in the book, it took nine years, two Generals and three literary secretaries before it was finally published entitled Spiritual Breakthrough.
I also noted how he used his musical gifts to help Salvationists experience something of the breeze of ‘praise and worship’ music that has re-energised Christian worship since the 1970s. He set himself the task of writing a number of Scripture-based choruses which were published in The War Cry and proved to be very popular.
The third example comes in the late 1980s when the church growth movement became influential. Again John Larsson took the concepts and made them intelligible for Army readers with the publication of How Your Corps Can Grow. He was a quiet, internal reformer – he did not seek popularist or prophetic methods.
A quarter of the book covers his final seven years of active officership when he was appointed the Army’s 21st Chief of the Staff and then elected the 17th General. Again these years reveal Larsson’s involvement in many significant decisions affecting the worldwide Army. For example: the International Commission on Officership; focusing the role of IHQ and rebuilding ‘101’; internationalising the IHQ leadership team; redefining adherency.
I warmly recommend this important Salvation Army book. Readers will gain not just the God-glorifying testimony of a multi-gifted leader but also benefit from a deeper understanding of The Salvation Army. Of course, the problem with all autobiography is that it lacks the independent judgment of the biographical writer. History will make judgments on John Larsson’s contribution to The Salvation Army. I suspect people will wonder how he ever managed to do it all – I hope they never underestimate his Christ-inspired calling, convictions and commitment.