GENERAL OF GOD’S ARMY
Born Evangeline Booth Burrows in Newcastle, New South Wales in Australia, Eva (as she was always known) was the eighth of nine children to parents (Robert Burrows and Ellen Watson) who were both officers in the Salvation Army.
She led a very nomadic childhood as her parents moved around Australia, spreading the word of God. Her parents believed in living amongst the people they were trying to convert, so it was a poverty-stricken childhood – and it was extremely strict.
She was a bit of a rebel. “I went through a rebellious stage in my teens – I refused to go to church with my parents…I thought the strict and disciplined life of the Salvation Army didn’t allow me to fly my own wings.” She left the organisation.
However, she did become Head Girl at Brisbane State High School.
She was the first member of her family to go onto higher education. She went to Queensland University to study English and History.
During her studies there, she went to an evangelical religious service and it reawakened her belief in God – and she re-joined the Salvation Army.
Her first posting abroad was to Portsmouth in Hampshire, England. There she was an assistant officer working in the Southampton and Channel Islands area.
From there Eva came to London to train at the William Booth Memorial Training College and became a commissioned officer in 1951. Simultaneously, she took a teaching qualification at London University.
She was then sent to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to carry out missionary work, so she did become an actual teacher at the Howard Institute. Soon she was training other people to become teachers. She absolutely loved the country.
She had a sabbatical to go to Sydney University to take her M.A. in Education. Her dissertation was on the training of African teachers.
When she returned to Rhodesia, she became principal at the Howard Institute before moving to the Usher Institute, turning it into an ‘outstanding education centre for girls.’
By 1970, she came to England to become vice principal at the International College for Officers, based at Sydenham Hill, London, rising to eventually be principal. She was also leader of the Salvation Army Women’s Social Services in Britain.
From there it was promotion to be territorial commander in Sri Lanka, then back to the UK to hold a similar role in Scotland. She worked extensively amongst the poor in Glasgow and made such an impact that the Salvation Army’s first residential care and nursing home in the country was named in her honour.
Her next posting was to her native Australia. There she worked with the Prime Minister Bob Hawke to develop a national scheme to help unemployed young people.
Then, in 1986, the leader of the Salvation Army, General Jarl Wahlstrom, retired. There were 7 candidates on the short list to replace him, and she was the only woman. Nevertheless, she was chosen to lead the organisation – only the second woman ever (following General Evangeline Booth (1934-1939), the granddaughter of founder William Booth). The election was very close though, Eva winning 24-22 on the fourth ballot (i.e. winning by one person’s decision). She was the 13th General – and the youngest at 56.
She was known for her organisation, belief in equality and human rights for all – and an evangelical zeal that spread the Salvation Army into over 90 different countries.
Upon appointment she immediately criticised the South African government in public for its apartheid policy.
She also took on the Church of England for its refusal to allow women priests (until 1992). She compared the attitude of the Church of England with that of the Salvation Army – “Right from the very beginning women were given two great privileges – one was to be ordained and to preach, and the other was to have any position equal with men”.
But she felt her biggest achievement was re-establishing the Salvation Army in Russia after the fall of Communism in 1991. She led a march of the Salvation Army (in full uniform), with a brass band playing, through the streets of Leningrad – the first time this had happened since the Bolsheviks had banned the organisation in 1923. She held the Salvation Army flag aloft, very proudly.
And then she preached a “message of salvation”, in October Square, before distributing food, clothing and bibles to the homeless, and down-and-outs.
This work continued in Moscow, where she set up a charitable organisation to provide social services to people who were struggling to cope after the political and economic collapse of the country.
And she returned to Russia in 1993 to ordain the Salvation Army’s first 10 recruits post communism. They included a university professor, a psychologist, a paediatrician, a lawyer and a former Soviet army colonel.
Back in Britain she was praised for restoring the Salvation Army’s finances and saving them from bankruptcy after some officers had become involved in a fraudulent investment scheme that lost the army £6.2 million.
Each term of commanding the Salvation Army lasts for 5 years, but Eva’s tenure was extended for two more years due to, “her excellent record and achievements.” She always felt her work in Britain had been extremely challenging as the British were the most resistant to change.
Asked about her life in the Salvation Army, Eva said her commitment was for life – but there was one thing she might have changed – “I am called to this ministry and a life of celibacy is something that I have chosen. But if I did it again, the only thing that would interest me would be marriage, because I’m a normal human being…If I were married though, I would be Mrs General Somebody, not General Burrows.”
She was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in 1994. She was also inducted into the ‘Victoria Honour Roll of Women’ and received many other awards.
This included three honorary degrees. The one she was most proud of was a Doctorate in Philosophy from her alma mater the University of Queensland.
A biography was written about her by Henry Gariepy, entitled ‘General of God’s Army’. This was followed by a second one called ‘Getting Things Done’, by Wendy Green. In it, Wendy said, “She only needs to meet people once and she knows all about them – and never forgets them.”
A good example of this was on the day she was elected General, she got a phone call of congratulations from her old high school teacher, Mr Adsett. The moment he said “hello”, she knew who it was – even though they hadn’t met for 50 years.
She was in a nursing home in Melbourne. On the day she died she had been tended to by two African nurses. The three of them sang the Zimbabwean National Anthem together – and Eva died happy.
She was survived by one sister, Margaret.
There was a service of thanksgiving for her life held at Melbourne Town Hall. It was beamed to Salvation Army units around the world. During his address, the current leader General Cox claimed that he (and his future successors) were only borrowing the title – it was Eva who would always be known as “The General.”
It was also mentioned that the late evangelist Billy Graham (who she always got on well with), said, “General Eva Burrows was unquestionably one of the most respected and influential Christian leaders of our time.”
Posthumously, she was awarded the ‘Order of the Founder’, the highest possible award of the Salvation Army (rarely given), at a ceremony in London.
Eva was described as, “a leader of vision who took the Army where it had not dared to go before.”
RIP – Religious Instruction Post-Communism