In late August 1863, on the eve of Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, the specter of death hung over a Gardner physician named W.M. Shean.
Shean was a “Free-Stater” who had opposed the expansion of slavery into Kansas. Quantrill had planned to kill Shean on his way from Missouri to Lawrence, an anti-slavery stronghold.
Fortunately for Shean, he evaded Quantrill by hiding in tall grass until the guerrilla band gave up on finding him and rode on to Lawrence, where they burned much of the town and killed between 160 and 190 men and teenaged boys.
The beneficiaries of Shean’s survival included the First Presbyterian Church of Gardner, which the doctor co-founded in 1866.
Some say it is the oldest church in Gardner. It certainly is one of the oldest. And 150 years later, amid competition from megachurches and the growing secularization of American society, First Presbyterian has been energized by a new pastor who is committed to its mission of love and caring.
“The founders of the congregation felt that it was important to come together and have a place where they could gather and be faithful,” said the Rev. Kimberly N. Young, who recently completed her first year as pastor of First Presbyterian. “I’m grateful for what they did to bring together a community to represent and reflect our faith tradition, and to be able to share in that community.”
The church grew as the city of Gardner grew, but membership declined a bit in recent years. Now, under the guidance of a new minister, it is drawing inspiration from its core beliefs to continue and expand its mission.
Steeped in history
History permeates throughout this church, located across the street from Gardner City Hall. Limestone from the original First Presbyterian, built nearby in 1870, rises to the ceiling on the altar of the current sanctuary.
“Every Sunday we’re able to worship here, and it reminds the congregation and myself of the history of this place and the people who have come before,” Young said. “Several church members are descendants of the original founders and are very active in the congregation. When they look at the stones, they might remember their grandma or grandpa.”
The original stone church was damaged in 1892, and a new church was built at site of the current church in 1894.
The church received a big boost in 1948, when Gardner’s Methodist church combined with it and brought in 130 members.
The second church building was destroyed by fire in 1993 and was replaced by today’s First Presbyterian, which was dedicated in 1996.
The new, modern church doesn’t look anything like the previous structures. But a booklet commemorating the church’s 150th anniversary states that “buildings that have housed our congregation do not define it, and we continue to carry our faith and Christian service into modern, and very trying, times.”
A cornerstone of the community
The history of First Presbyterian is intertwined with the history of Gardner, located about 30 miles southwest of downtown Kansas City.
Pioneers first settled here in 1857, when this spot was a major intersection of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails, which then were bustling with wagon trains heading west.
Shirley Brown VanArsdale, president of the Gardner Historical Museum, said some of the earliest settlers set up mercantile businesses to supply the wagon trains. And they founded the town’s first churches, including First Presbyterian.
The town’s early churches helped Gardner thrive, VanArsdale said. “They’re the foundation of your community,” she said.
Young said the town and the church “reflect one another. My take on the town as a newbie is that they’re a very forward-thinking town. They love their history. They’re very family connected. But they’re also thinking, ‘This isn’t the end. What are we going to be? How are we going to help the world in the future?’ ”
At the same time, Young said, members of First Presbyterian feel that “we have been an historic church for 150 years. We’ve done a lot of good in the community. We love to care for people. How can we do that in a changing world? In a world where there are a lot of needs, how can we help?”
One example of how the church helps the community is the Joy Closet, a shop where needy individuals can obtain items such a free clothing.
Other examples include the church’s “mitten tree,” a Christmas tree adorned with mittens and stocking caps for children in need of those items, and “Operation Christmas Child,” which sends boxes of toys and other items to children overseas.
“If anybody needs something, we give as much as we have,” Young said.
A small town feel
Laura McKaig joined this church in 1942 when she was 16. Back then, 500 to 600 people called Gardner home. In recent years Gardner has boomed, and it is estimated that the population stood at about 20,000 in 2015.
But there’s still a “small town feel” within the church,” McKaig said. “To me, we’re still closely caring. We’re a smaller, more closely-knit church group. We know nearly everybody here and in the neighboring area around us.”
McKaig said belonging to such a historic church as this one is “kind of awesome. We are amazed that it’s still a live and vibrant church and active in the community, taking care of people and helping when we can.”
Marilyn Wolf, a member for 68 years, considers First Presbyterian her “home away from home.”
“I was married in this church,” Wolf said. “My six children were baptized here. The people in this church are my family.”
Peg Beach has lived in Gardner for about two years and has belonged to First Presbyterian for a little over a year. “They’ve helped me out a lot as far as meeting people in the community,” she said. “If you make an effort and start doing things, cooking and having meals with them, it’s a great place to be.”
Vespersia Pennington first joined a Presbyterian church was in 1938, in South Dakota. She has been attending services at First Presbyterian Church of Garner since 1981.
“I am very interested in the philosophies of the Presbyterian Church as a whole,” Pennington said. “This church has served the community very well. However, we’ve had some hard times. We need to revive our church group and extend ourselves more into the community here in Gardner.”
Nancy Schulz joined First Presbyterian in 1957. Schulz said the key to the church’s survival has been leadership, studying Christian material and service to the community.
First Presbyterian has survived while “many churches are having trouble,” Schulz said. “Many churches in our area have closed, mainly due to big churches coming in, and we don’t live Christianity like we used to.”
Schulz noted that First Presbyterian suffered a decline in membership in recent years, but she said “it has grown back, and we have an awesome new minister. We’re really pleased with her.”
Competing with big churches and secularization
First Presbyterian Church of Gardner today has 220 to 230 members, comprising just under 100 families, Young said.
She said the church lost a pastor in 2012 and then had two interim pastors and a six-month gap with no pastor during the next three years. Membership declined slightly during that period but she said that “now it’s building back up.”
Young said First Presbyterian is trying to attract new members “with heart and love, showing care, and showing people how they can care for others.”
Beach, one of the newer members, said she is “not into the big megachurches, so I wanted to find a church that was more traditional.”
But many Americans in recent years have flocked to megachurches that offer a wide variety of programming and resources that smaller churches cannot match.
“The megachurches undoubtedly have had an impact on the small community churches,” said Timothy Miller, professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. “I don’t think it’s different than any other part of the culture. Wal-Mart now replaces all kinds of small businesses. This whole culture has moved in the direction of bigger.”
Miller said bigger churches may offer more choices, but “you tend to lose the sense of community you had before. There are positives and negatives to it.”
Young cited advantages and disadvantages of small vs. big churches. “The value of a small church is people will notice you if you are not there. I know all of the children’s names. That won’t happen in a big church.”
At a big church, “the pastors are usually expert preachers, very top notch, and you’ll get a good inspirational word every week,” she said. “It’s more hit and miss with a smaller church. I might not have a fantastic sermon every week.”
Big churches also offer “high quality music” and “wide variety of programming,” Young said.
“People come to a smaller church for community and connection and family,” she said, adding that “there’s a place for all of us — big or small.”
But Young feels that the biggest competition faced by First Presbyterian and other small community churches is the trend toward people being “non-churched.”
Miller agreed with Young’s assessment.
“The number of people who are religiously ‘none,’ as we say, has grown dramatically in the last decade or two,” he said. “It used to be that if you did a survey and asked people what their religious preference was, close to 95 percent of people would identify as being part of some religion, even if they weren’t terribly active.”
But now about 20 percent of Americans classify themselves as having no religion, Miller said. “When you’re getting a steady, solid growth in religious ‘nothing,’ that I think is probably a bigger competition.”
Looking back, looking forward
When First Presbyterian was founded, the nation was trying to heal itself from the wounds of great division. The same holds true today.
“We continue to try to figure out how to be positive,” Young said. “There are differences of opinion about what is the right thing to do, even within this congregation. But how do we come together and find the right path for the community, for the congregation, for the world?”
Young said she hopes First Presbyterian will meet today’s need for healing, just as it did in 1866.
“That would be my hope — that our values and our faith would shape the good things we can do in the community. Some churches are closing and falling apart. This church is not. This church is thinking about where we’re going to be in the next 150 years.”
1866 First Presbyterian Church of Gardner is organized and elects trustees. The Rev. W.H. Smith of De Soto is named pastor.
1870 The congregation’s first church is built.
1894 Second church is completed to replace the original building, which had been damaged.
1903 First Presbyterian’s Ladies Aid group sends “flood relief” to Kansas City, which had suffered a disastrous flood.
1930 First Presbyterian elects its first woman elder, Kristina Johnson McIntyre.
1948 Gardner’s Methodist church combines with First Presbyterian Church, bringing 130 new members.
1993 Fire destroys second church building.
1996 Current church dedicated.
2012 The church loses a pastor and goes three years without a permanent pastor, contributing to a decline in membership.
2015 The Rev. Kimberly N. Young is installed as pastor.
2016 First Presbyterian Church of Gardner celebrates its 150th anniversary.