Maine Compass: A voice from Kennebec County’s past speaks to our social divides (2024)

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More than 100 years ago, Robert Hallowell Gardiner III taught lessons that remain important today.

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Scott Klinger

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Robert Hallowell Gardiner III is pictured in Gardiner with nine of his grandchildren in this photo from the Feb. 27, 1924, edition of the Lewiston Evening Journal. Gardiner died less than four months later. Clipping from Newspapers.com

One hundred years ago this week — on June 15, 1924 — the remarkable life of Robert Hallowell Gardiner III ended. While the Gardiner family name might resonate with many in central Maine, the particulars of this Gardiner have long been forgotten by most.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Klinger lives in Gardiner.

The great-grandson of Silvester Gardiner, one of the Kennebec Proprietors and founder of the modern city that bears his name, Gardiner was born in 1855, coming of age as the Civil War tore the United States asunder. He was raised in California and lived in a primitive adobe house surrounded by neighbors from several Native American tribes. His father, a military officer, sought to protect tribal members from prospectors eager to colonize the land and clear it of its Indigenous inhabitants. Young Gardiner grew up well aware of the painful conflicts between people and cultures and lived his life pursuing the call of justice to live peaceably together.

Maine Compass: A voice from Kennebec County’s past speaks to our social divides (3)

Robert Hallowell Gardiner III in his obituary photo, from the June 16, 1924, Kennebec Journal. Clipping from Newspapers.com

He went on to study law at Harvard, setting up a law practice in Boston upon graduation. He became active in the Episcopal Church, with a special interest in prayer and education. In 1910 he assumed leadership of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, a church organization established to encourage prayer and charitable action among Episcopalian men.

Poor health beset him, forcing him to retire early from his legal practice. He turned his full-time attention to church work. The year was 1918, and the brutal and divisive First World War was ending. Gardiner believed that the church needed to step more into the world and become a force for peace and healing. He promoted churches getting out of their denominational siloes and out into the world serving those in need.

His vision was big, encompassing the entire world and all the Christian churches. He attended conferences and maintained active correspondence with church members throughout the world. It is said that the mail volumes were so great arriving at his Oaklands Farm home, that the Gardiner post office had a whole room set aside just to process mail for Mr. Gardiner, some of it arriving addressed simply to “Robert H Gardiner, Maine, USA.”

His work connected the world to Maine, and Maine to the world.

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His ecumenical undertakings laid the foundation for The World Council of Churches, which remains an active and important institution today.

Gardiner’s work was straightforward and continues to be relevant for us today in our polarized time.

Here are his key points:

• Churches have differences in their nationalities, cultures, spiritual beliefs and practices, but they all share a common purpose of service in their communities and in the world.

• Lay people need to take the lead in getting out of the sanctuary and into the community. He was concerned that worshippers relied too much on the professional clergy to provide love and care. This is not unlike our current society where we look to our political leaders to solve our problems for us.

• Lastly, developing the talents of the young is essential. While churches of the day provided religious education, Gardiner focused on helping young people develop their talents and deploy their gifts in service to the world.

Times were different when Gardiner lived, but the principles that underscored his work remain important for us today, whether or not we are church members. Many of us live in siloes — political, religious, and class — but we also live together in communities with many unmet needs. Can we as ordinary citizens find ways to set aside our differences and work together to solve our own problems? Can we empower our children to grow and help them deploy their gifts as they find their place in the world? And can we achieve this in a spirit of hope and love, rather than vitriol and hatred?

Let the work of our ancestors like Robert Hallowell Gardiner III guide and inspire us.

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