Professor Carl Lawrenz


WELS Professor Carl LawrenzCarl J. Lawrenz (1908-1989)

Seminary President (1957-1978)


By John C. Lawrenz


My father, Carl John Lawrenz, served as president of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from 1957-1978 and on its faculty from 1944-1982. These years paralleled the emergence of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) from the shadow of the Synodical Conference and its largest member, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS).

It was also a time of change at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. In 1944 the school was simply known as the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Thiensville. Its eighty-acre footprint retained a rural feel, as did the synod that supported it. WELS had churches in fewer than a dozen states, mostly in the non-urban upper Middle West. Two-thirds of the seminary campus was rented out to a farmer. Students weren’t allowed to marry before graduation. Most did not have school time jobs. The parking lot was big enough for only a dozen cars. Students were fed from farm donations that were gathered in the fall of the year. A chicken coop provided breakfast eggs and chicken soup. The dining hall and four faculty homes had iceboxes serviced by a truck that delivered ice each day. Coal fueled the school’s furnaces and their burned out “clinkers” were spread on icy roads in lieu of salt in winter.

There was no business manager, and the caretaker’s wife doubled as chief cook. Students paid fees, not tuition. The buildings were covered with vines whose leaves hosted myriads of sputtering English sparrows. Classes were taught in English but the delivery of a German sermon was still a rite of passage. There was no vicar year, and there were only three teaching stations, one each for the first, second, and third year seminarians. Graduates most often started their pastoral ministry in the Dakotas or Nebraska. The student body rarely exceeded fifty.

The fifty square miles that encircled Thiensville became the City of Mequon in 1957. Along with a new address, the school got a new name, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Farming slowly left the campus. Acres of well-kept grass replaced the corn rows. Vines disappeared, too, as did the sparrows and the chicken coop. Four campus homes became seventeen. Luther Lane and Wartburg Circle changed the way cars entered and exited from a parking lot accommodating eighty or more. The seminary engaged its first business manager. Students entered marriage before graduation in growing numbers so that an ever-increasing segment of the student body lived off-campus. Tuition appeared and student jobs became a necessity for the majority. Both student body and faculty tripled in size. A year of off-campus training under the guidance of a parish pastor was first of all voluntary and then mandatory. German faded away. The degree given to graduates was switched from B.Th. to M.Div. and a summer quarter offered additional post-graduate learning for pastors. In the 1970s, new mission starts often claimed a huge slice of each graduating class, as the Wisconsin Synod reached every state in the early 1980s.

My father learned to live with change and to manage it from childhood, something he would need as president of WLS during changing times.

Dad’s father, Herman Lawrenz, came to the United States at the age of two. Dad’s grandparents were among the wave of Pomeranian Germans who elected farming in the USA rather than serving long years in the Prussian army. Dad’s mom was Kathrine Haberkorn whose family came to America under similar circumstances. Husband and wife, plus Dad’s bachelor uncle, farmed two forty-acre plots about five miles due west of Lomira, Wisconsin, in Dodge County. Dad was born on March 30, 1908, the second of four children, the only boy after his brother Martin died as a child. His two sisters were Vera and Irmgard, both of whom later served as WELS teachers.

Dad remembered life on the farm fondly and took exception to anyone who suggested that his formative years were either deficient or dull. Dad’s father knew animals, particularly horses. The farm thrived and carried no debts through the Great Depression of the 1930s. The family also developed deep spiritual roots through regular home reading of the Bible and use of the periodicals sent out by the Wisconsin Synod in German and English. Years later, when the roles of men and women became an issue in WELS, Dad remembered how his mother had uncommon wisdom in spiritual matters. She was the family expert in respect to “Küche und Kirche” (kitchen and church). It was mother’s counsel that father often carried to the voters assembly of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lomira.

The Lawrenz children learned the three R’s through English instruction at Lomira’s public schools, but not without controversy during World War I. Dad never forgot the Irish teacher who left him uninvited to the end of the year picnic because his family was German. Yet it was through the German language that Pastor Rudolf F.W. Pietz impressed Luther’s Small Catechism on young Carl. Recognizing my father’s potential, Pastor Pietz urged him to leave home and study at Northwestern College, Watertown. The move to Watertown came a year after elementary school, largely because my father skipped a grade before eighth grade and had not yet grown tall enough to wear “long pants.” The in-between year was spent at Lomira’s public high school where Dad learned woodworking. It would remain a love and a hobby throughout his life.

There is no doubt that the prep and college departments of Northwestern had a profound impact on my father socially, intellectually, and spiritually. Straw hats, walking sticks, and a car with a rumble seat were part of Dad’s life during the tail end of the “Roaring Twenties.” All his life my father set a premium on good grooming and natty dress. Dad became editor of the school paper, The Black and Red, something that prepared him for writing essays, editorials, and doctrinal briefs. At college graduation, the Lomira boy, who had spoken little English until the age of seven, earned the right to give the English oration entitled “America’s Debt to Lord Shelbourne,” the inside story of how America acquired Wisconsin and the rest of the Northwest Territories from England in 1783.

Dorm life in an all-boy school can be rough and tumble. Northwestern lived through controversy during the 1920s. A number of wayward students were expelled and then readmitted, dividing faculty and board along the way. Reverberations rippled through much of the Wisconsin Synod. As a young pastor my father later served on a committee to heal what had been torn. Dad often stressed how important it is to understand every point of view in a contentious situation clearly, to resist a quick run to judgment, and to be open to options that do not violate principle. Dad was not an athlete, but he participated in the school’s drama program and became an officer in the school’s military company where giving and taking orders promoted self-discipline as well as teamwork.

When Dad moved his education from college to seminary, the stock market had just crashed, and the newly built home for the seminary on the outskirts of Thiensville had just been dedicated. Dad was in the first class to attend Thiensville all three years. In 1929, the faculty still had two of the three “Wauwatosa Theologians” who shaped the “back to the Scripture” approach of WELS to Christian doctrine and to the evangelical application of what Scripture taught. Dad saw August Pieper in class, but not Joh. P. Koehler, who was dismissed at the end of the decade. Another Johannes P., much younger, with the surname Meyer, left a lasting impression. Meyer was the embodiment of a “quote the Bible, not me” theology.

The campus had virtually no trees, and lacked mowed grass, flowers, and the other adornments which make the Mequon campus so beautiful today. Instead of joining those who complained about synodical debt and the naked ugliness of a farm not yet dressed up to look like a campus, the student body did something. They planted and landscaped. All his life Dad continued to cultivate and improve wherever he lived or served. It was part of his nature. Arbor Day was his “return to the farm,” never a day off from work.

Graduation in 1932 coincided with the depth of the Great Depression. Professors weren’t getting paid. Calls for pastors had dried up. The class of 1932 had one teacher call which went to a classmate. My father returned to the family farm and was pitching hay when the church council of St. Paul, North Fond du Lac, appeared in the back forty with a simple message, “Will you be our pastor?” Ministry was never a “right” for my father, but at all times an undeserved grace from God. This core belief helped my father guide students who faced discouraging circumstances.

Dad served twelve years as fulltime pastor and part-time teacher at St. Paul of North Fond du Lac, a railroad town only a dozen miles from Lomira. For seven years he pastored as a bachelor. His coworker and confidant was Emanuel Arndt, the principal of St. Paul School. Arndt was the first of several “best friends” whom Dad used as sounding boards. Another was Pastor Waldemar Pless, who years later served as chairman of the Seminary Board.

Through Emanuel and his wife, Ruth, Dad met and courted my mother, Irene Zabel of Montello, Wisconsin. At the time Mom worked as the sole secretary of the courthouse staff of Marquette County. Her father had served a term as sheriff. Mom’s solid Christian upbringing, her artistic and musical talent, and her sense of adventure not only captured my father’s heart, but also kept him out of the proverbial ivory tower the rest of his life. Mom served as seminary secretary when Dad became president. She also had a hand in forming a support group for student wives. The marriage endured fifty years and was for family and students a model of teamwork, hard work, and a kind word or smile given at just the right moment.

Another blessing of the North Fond du Lac years was the stalwart character of St. Paul members, many of whom were unemployed and barely making it. A third blessing was Gustav E. Bergemann, who had served the Wisconsin Synod as president from the year my father was born in 1908 until a year after Dad entered the ministry in 1932. For several years, the ex-president and young pastor studied together. In 1943 Bergemann commended his young friend to the Seminary Board when they were issuing a call for a professor of Old Testament and Christian education. I recall a discussion in the family room between men representing the first two generations of the twentieth century. The topic was whether to add  a fourth vicar year to the seminary program. Dad touted the advantages. Bergemann argued for the sufficiency of things as they were.

In 1943 I became the first of five children and the only one born while Dad served in North Fond du Lac. Kathryn came in 1945, David in 1947, Stephen in 1950 and Mary in 1953. Mequon didn’t have houses for a young professor with small children, so our family lived for a while above the student dining hall. John P. Meyer, who had become president, graciously offered to swap his faculty home for our apartment. Such noble generosity was a precedent my father emulated when assigning residences among a much larger faculty. Seniority had its place, but would sometimes bow to obvious need.

As a new professor, Dad attended the classes of other faculty but also enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Chicago. There he sharpened his Hebrew skills and his knowledge of Old Testament history and culture. Bergemann and others counseled against staying at Chicago until a degree had been earned, another precedent. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary has always valued mature theology over the pursuit of degrees.

I recall in my toddler years hearing words like “Catechetics,” “Dogmatics” and “Exegesis.” I felt proud that my father was an expert in dogs, and cats and Jesus. Seminary, of course, was much more than a child’s fantasy. Over the years my father taught future pastors the art of clearly teaching law and gospel through the catechism and Bible history. Students learned that the Hebrew language unlocked clarity beyond what translation had to offer. Every student came to know that my father treasured the book of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament. Dad’s capstone course, perhaps, was his teaching of the last and most clearly definitive of the Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord.

For a time my father was in charge of the library that preserved a venerable stock of Latin and German volumes in a space with poor lighting. With student help the library catalog was overhauled and a new, well-lit reading room appeared. There the latest titles beckoned readers, while the venerable works of the past remained secure on their shelves. Many a well-worn book was re-stitched and given a new binding and cover in our family basement. Dad was not an “out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new” sort of person. He taught us, “Don’t be the first to embrace the new, nor the last to abandon the old.”

As a faculty-appointed editor, Dad wrote editorials for The Northwestern Lutheran, the WELS bimonthly. He became the seminary’s representative to the synodical Board for Parish Education and became close friends with Emil Trettin and Adolph Fehlauer. Most Sundays Dad and other professors were out in congregations preaching.

Once the postwar years of the late 1940s gave way to the 1950s, the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods became locked in an earnest debate over the path forward in confessional Lutheranism. Missouri was courting synods outside the Synodical Conference whose views on Scripture, the Antichrist, millennialism, and predestination were suspect. There was a real concern in the Wisconsin Synod that differences would not be faced forthrightly, but glossed over. Today’s WELS Commission on Inter-Church Relations was in those days known as the Church Union Committee. This committee represented the Lutheran character of WELS in dealing with others. Every professor was a committee member, and the seminary president served as chairman. New issues arose over practical topics. For example, had the military chaplaincy and the Boy Scout movement improperly blurred or erased confessional lines in Missouri? The number of meetings increased, both within and outside of the Synod, including a series of international consultations in America, Europe, and Australia.

In 1955 the Evangelical Lutheran Synod suspended fellowship with the Missouri Synod. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary lost its president, Edmund Reim, when the Synod failed to do the same in 1957. Reim and others formed the Church of the Lutheran Confession. My father was appointed interim president, then called as president in Reim’s place. Between 1957 and 1961 Oscar J. Naumann, the President of WELS since 1953, Pastor Oscar Siegler, and my father worked together as a “Study Committee.” As a matter of fact, there was just as much travel time as study time. The three men carried the synod’s concerns to congregations across the country. Frequent absences had a price. Not every class at the seminary met according to schedule. Family events, too, were sometimes put off for a future day. Finally, fully informed, WELS delegates at the 1961 convention in Saginaw, Michigan, voted to dissolve its connection with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Why? The majority in WELS were now well informed. They had no doubt after four years of patient testimony that Missouri had abandoned the Synodical Conference’s historic position on church fellowship. Two years later the Synodical Conference itself dissolved.

These were not easy years. Emotions ran high on all sides, and personal attacks spared none of the synod’s leaders. Families were torn. Friends turned into adversaries. The middle road that my father walked together with his partners, Naumann and Siegler, was one built upon principles taught in Scripture. The holding or abandoning of these principles had both short-range and long-range consequences for the Christian faith. Hoping for change without evidence of change was a formula for the entrenchment of views not supported by God’s own Word. An equally deplorable option was acting before the majority understood what the issues were. My father often said that existing fellowships, like the one Wisconsin had with Missouri for several generations, ought not be broken quickly, and certainly not if driven by emotion or before a debt of love had been paid to inform the uninformed.

It is not surprising that some thought out loud that WELS would disintegrate. I remember the night my father came home from a particularly discouraging meeting and called our family together around the kitchen table to say that we should be prepared as a family to leave our home on the seminary hill, if need be. There was another time when it became very clear to me that the confessional battle was more than words. It was about Christ’s love applied to real life situations. To Carl Lawrenz fellowship was only and always an act of love following the spirit, not the letter. In the very midst of the confessional turmoil, a young man from a Missouri congregation died in an auto accident involving my father. Given the family’s grief and my father’s personal involvement, attending the funeral was deemed immediately appropriate, even though it would have been confusing and a betrayal of conscience to attend the very same church under other circumstances.

In spite of the worst predictions, only a very few congregations and pastors left WELS. The Wisconsin Synod had taken a stand based on conviction. My father knew that fighters do not easily unclench their fists. But he believed with others that they must. Thankfully the focus in WELS turned toward building on what the Lord had graciously preserved. A series of synod-wide campaigns were mounted to inform and convince. They resulted in more young people studying for ministry, more congregations opening in more parts of America, more missionaries sent to more mission fields, and more funds to make everything possible.

Expansion impacted Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Two additional dormitory sections were built together with expanded office space (1959-63). Next came an entirely modern library (1968) and a new dining hall and kitchen (1970). A new gymnasium/auditorium was planned for the future and became a reality finally in 1986. All over campus, old space was converted for new use. More students meant more professors and more homes to house them. A three-week Summer Quarter began in 1971. Faculty was deployed to places like Sweden and Central Africa. Dad himself took a turn teaching for a semester at the seminary in Chelston, Zambia, accompanied by my mother. The experience left a deep and lasting impression on both of them. I recall Dad saying, “We should have done this years ago!” Finances and the administration of building and grounds were consolidated in a business office staffed by a full-time manager and secretarial help.

Other changes came more slowly and only after my father stepped down from the presidency. While still president, he reserved for himself the task of interviewing all graduates and vicars. He continued to write their characterizations for the committee that gave graduates their first assignment. He also kept the functions of academic dean and counselor in matters dealing with student marriage. A larger and highly talented faculty required thoughtful organization to abet a free flow of information. Regular faculty meetings made the inner workings of an evolving administration transparent. Yet more meetings were never at the expense of regularly scheduled sessions to sharpen the theological insight of everyone.

Over the years a large garden behind the Lawrenz professorage provided a needed physical outlet for my father. Dr. Paul Peters cultivated his garden in a three-piece suit. Like the farm boy he was, my father stripped to the waist and was not afraid to sweat as he pushed the rototiller. Come summer he enlisted his family to pick sweet corn, currants, raspberries, beans, peas, carrots and much more. Fall harvest included putting up preserves in Mason jars and packing away carrots for the winter in a barrel between layers of sand and then tucked away in the cool of the basement. The contents of a basement “wood room” enabled containers and other useful things to be built.

A major diversion was visiting and maintaining a summer cottage on Mt. Morris Lake, eight miles northeast of Wautoma. Dad had joined the Lutheran Retreat Association in 1939 while serving the congregation in North Fond du Lac. He bought a lot on a bluff overlooking the lake and built a compact getaway with a great room, kitchen, bath, two bedrooms and two lofts, all around a fieldstone fireplace. There were leaves to rake in the spring, general clean-up in fall, but most of all, time invested in puttering and relaxing in the summer. It was during the summer that we kids learned to swim, canoe, do crafts, and improve our social skills at the weekly “barn party.”

While undergoing a medical exam for the first overseas Summer Quarter (1978), Dad learned that he needed multiple bypass surgery. The operation was a success. A remarkable six-month recovery permitted full participation at the archaeological expedition to Tel Michal in Israel. But it also became the year to turn over the presidency to another.

Dad continued to teach at Mequon until 1982. My parents purchased a house around the block from St. John church in Lomira. In retirement my father continued gardening and used his cache of tools to build bookshelves and make other improvements. He completed a scholarly treatment of the opening chapters of Genesis. He organized his papers. And he gardened. Shortly after returning from a trip representing WELS in Scandinavia, Dad learned that he had a broken hip, the result of the same cancer that had claimed his father many years earlier.

The pastor and professor in Dad did not fade in his final years. Under home hospice care he came to appreciate the ministrations of a woman who belonged to a Roman Catholic order, but was open to Dad’s loving testimony about the Lord Jesus and his gospel.

Dad died on October 14, 1989, and was laid to rest three days later in a plot next to St. John church in Lomira where he was born. Synod President Carl Mischke, a former student of Dad’s, had these words to say at the funeral: “Carl Lawrenz was a faithful colleague and brother who so richly unfolded for us the pages of God’s holy Word.” In twenty-one years as president and thirty-eight years as professor, Carl Lawrenz played a vital role in shaping the ministries of 1200 future pastors and missionaries.


For Further Reading:


  1. Edward C. Fredrich, “Professor Carl J. Lawrenz, 1908-1989,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 87, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 9-12.
  2. Joel Gerlach, “Two Pastoral Educators: John Meyer & Carl Lawrenz,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
  3. Carl J. Lawrenz, “Essay on Church Fellowship,” Essays on Church Fellowship (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 407-440.
  4. Carl J. Lawrenz, “An Evaluation of Walther’s Theses on the Church and Its Ministry,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
  5. Carl J. Lawrenz, “The Role of Man and Woman According to Holy Scripture,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
  6. Carl J. Lawrenz, “Our Church Workers are Trained to be Witnesses at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.