Community, Mennonite church and Goshen College community members bid farewell to former President J. Lawrence Burkholder after he is laid to rest

GOSHEN, Ind. – Residents of Elkhart County as well as members of the Mennonite church and the Goshen College community praised President Emeritus J. Lawrence Burkholder as a visionary leader with an enduring love for the church, his family and scholarship during a memorial service Wednesday, June 30.

President Burkholder, 92, an influential figure in the Mennonite church, died on June 24. He played many significant roles throughout the 20th century as a pastor, professor, pilot, philosopher, civil rights activist, wartime relief worker and Goshen College president, from 1971 to 1984.

After his burial Wednesday morning at Elkhart Prairie Cemetery in Goshen, about 350 family members and friends gathered at College Mennonite Church for a memorial service led by Pastor of Fellowship Rosemary Widmer. The call to worship and opening prayer was followed by the hymn, “O God, our help in ages past,” led by Pastor of Music and Arts Lee Dengler.

Former Goshen College Provost John A. Lapp, who delivered the eulogy, described Burkholder’s many contributions as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, brother-in-law, uncle as well as a Mennonite church member and a pastor, a China relief worker, a scholar at Princeton and Harvard universities, a philosopher and a president.

Commenting on Burkholder’s devotion to the church, Lapp said, “In his baptismal vows he committed himself to be available for service in the family of God. At Goshen, Shanghai and Princeton he made decisions not to pursue in his words ‘a career in the secular world’ choosing rather ‘a vocation in the church.’ When Goshen College called him to serve as president, there was little doubt how he should respond.”

Lapp said that Burkholder was deeply influenced by his love of aviation and piloting airplanes, his experiences as a relief worker in China during the war-torn years of 1944 to 1948 and his love for and partnership with his wife, Harriet, to whom he was married from 1939 to 2007. He also lauded Burkholder’s contributions as a college president.

“He embodied the institution and its tradition,” Lapp said. “There was no doubt who was the campus leader. He was the silent cheerleader frequently dropping in on athletic events. He rarely missed a drama or a musical program.”

Lapp said that Burkholder also was an eloquent speaker, whether in the classroom or during chapel, and an effective fundraiser. Burkholder’s most public contribution, Lapp said, was establishing a relationship that led to Goshen students going to China for study and Chinese teachers coming to Goshen to study English, U.S. culture and theology.

“Lawrence was indeed an admired college president, a well-regarded teacher at Goshen and Harvard, and a friend of many. He was, without a doubt, one of the 20thCentury Mennonite movement’s most provocative and creative thinkers,” Lapp said. “(But) Lawrence was a modest man … Several years ago he told me his primary role in life was to try to keep himself, the church, and the college honest.”

Goshen College President James E. Brenneman offered a remembrance in which he began by noting the coincidence of Burkholder, whom he described as a “mighty oak,” dying the very evening a tornado touched down in Goshen and toppled giant oak trees across Eighth Street.

Brenneman, who began his studies at Goshen College in 1974 – the third year of Burkholder’s presidency – praised his predecessor’s many contributions to the college.

“Without question, the Goshen College we love so much today was strengthened in immeasurable ways by the wise and innovative leadership of President Burkholder,” Brenneman said. “His global vision, his passion for learning, his advocacy of the liberal arts, his appreciation of sports and other co-curriculars, his commitment to expanding the endowment 10-fold, befriending the community at large, deepening connections to the church, all made his 13-year tenure as the president of Goshen College a truly remarkable landmark in our 116-year-old history.”

Brenneman described Burkholder as a president who was approachable, fun loving, friendly, thoughtful and inspiring – “someone I wished to emulate then as now.” He said Burkholder also challenged students to examine life’s difficult issues, such as trying to understand God’s will.

After becoming president four years ago, Brenneman said he appreciated visiting with Burkholder and speaking to him by phone about the college, the community and deep philosophical questions. Brenneman said Burkholder also challenged him to more fully realize the college’s vision as an intercultural and international learning community.

“He did lament with me that our campus was not yet a reflection of the actual cultural diversity of the global Mennonite Church or of our own surrounding community right here in Goshen. For him, a Christ-centered liberal arts education worthy of the name required such cultural diversity,” Brenneman said. “As he wrote elsewhere, ‘there is no turning back’ … ‘come what will, Goshen College is committed to being cross-cultural.’ Would that we honor his legacy by making that vision come to reality on our campus as it is off, as a matter of deed over good intentions.”

Janet Friesen, daughter of President Burkholder, offered a warm remembrance on behalf of the family in which she recalled her father’s “wry sense of humor, love of high-flying adventure, enduring curiosity about people, events and ideas, articulate expression of thought and his calm demeanor in the face of life’s challenges.”

“We each have our own memories of our life together as a family. Despite our varied experiences, above all, we feel grateful and privileged to have had such a remarkable and caring father, grandfather and great-grandfather,” Friesen said.

“We remember his dedication to family, education and the church. We felt secure in knowing that our parents were devoted to us and to each other and that home was always a safe place to live and grow.”

Friesen recalled her parents’ love of the Mennonite church and how much they enjoyed welcoming guests into their home. She also recalled her father’s kind parenting style, his devotion to his family despite his heavy schedule of studies, work and travel and his support for the education and activities of his children.

“There was never any doubt about our father’s deep religious faith which he demonstrated through leadership in the church, world relief, civil action, scholarship and teaching. At home he freely discussed his ideas with us which were often shared during lively dinner-time discussion,” Friesen said.

President Emeritus Vic Stoltzfus, who succeeded Burholder as president, offered a meditation on the grace of God – a subject Burkholder had requested that he address. Stoltzfus described four biblical meanings of grace, such as gracious hospitality and saving grace, and directly related them to Burkholder’s life. For example, he said Burkholder “lived a life of costly grace, which compelled him to follow Jesus Christ despite any personal sacrifices.

“It cost him to be separated from his family for a time, flying food to China. It cost him to write a Princeton doctoral thesis several decades ahead of its time in tension with mid-century Mennonite academics. It cost him to witness for racial justice and spend a brief time in a Florida jail. It cost him to leave the nation’s best-endowed university, for, at the time, one of the least endowed colleges – in Goshen,” Stoltzfus said.

Lawrence knew and embodied another meaning of grace – common grace – Stoltzfus said. “This is the claim that God graces all humanity, regardless of religious faith with wisdom, talent and skill,” Stoltzfus said.

“Lawrence recognized God’s work of common grace beyond the boundaries of his own Mennonite tradition. He studied in Mennonite, Lutheran and Presbyterian schools. His friends were Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular. He learned from – and taught people – from many faith perspectives.”

Stoltzfus said that Burkholder accomplished all that he did because of his “capacious mind,” his command of language and because of was a philosopher who also was a minister of the Word of God. “Lawrence was a large man who lived a large life, transformed and graced by a humble spirit.”

The memorial service also included the reading of Scriptures, the singing of “Deep River” by a choir made up of Goshen College students, faculty and staff members and retirees and the reading of the beloved Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled” by Lauren Friesen, President Burkholder’s son-in-law and the husband of Janet Friesen.

Following the service, friends shared more memories of Burkholder during a lunch in the Fellowship Hall of College Mennonite Church. Many people lingered for hours recalling the popular president and viewing exhibits on Burkholder’s life.

Burkholder received his bachelor of divinity degree from Lutheran Seminary (Gettysburg, Pa.) in 1942, and then was ordained as a minister by the Mennonite Church and served as the pastor of Croghan Mennonite Church in New York. He earned his master of theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1951 and his doctor of theology degree summa cum laude from Princeton in 1958.

In 1944, he volunteered to be an administrator of a relief program in India, serving as a representative for Mennonite Board of Missions. He then went on to serve in China until 1948, where he acted as associate director of Church World Services with Mennonite Central Committee, directed the activities of the National Clearing Committee and flew DC-3’s over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to Chinese refugees.

Upon his return to the United States in 1949, Burkholder became a professor in Goshen College’s Bible, Religion and Philosophy Department. In 1961, Burkholder was called to serve as a professor at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a part of the faculty until 1971. At Harvard, he was named chair of the Department of the Church and chair of Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity.

He returned to Goshen College to serve as its 11th president in 1971 and served until 1984. While at Goshen, he played a large role in developing the first undergraduate exchange program with the People’s Republic of China that began in 1980. He also helped build the college’s endowment and strengthened the relationship between the college and the community.

In his private time, Burkholder loved to fly airplanes, play tennis and fish. He also had a life-long passion for listening to classical music, especially organ music.

Burkholder is survived by his children, Howard Burkholder, Boston, Mass.; Janet (Lauren) Friesen, Flint, Mich., and Myrna Burkholder, Goshen, Ind.; two grandchildren, Eliot (Carrie) Friesen-Meyers and Erica (Blair Franklin) Friesen); one great-grandson, August Franklin; and a sister, Evelyn Kreider, Goshen, Ind.

He was preceded in death by his parents; his wife Harriet, on Sept. 5, 2007; his son, Gerald Burkholder on April 19, 1981; a brother, Harold Burkholder, and two sisters, Mildred M. Hackman and Verna Troyer.

Memorial gifts can be made to the J. Lawrence and Harriet Burkholder Merit Scholarship Fund at Goshen College. For information about ways of donating, go to To make an online contribution, click on “one-time credit card gift,” choose the “other” box option for designation and type the fund name into the blank box.

– Written by Richard R. Aguirre

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Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College Director of Public Relations Richard R. Aguirre at (574) 535-7571 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit