Paul G. Sonnack

by Phil Johnson

October 20, 1920 
 July 4, 1992

I immediately felt the loss when I learned that Dr. Paul Sonnack of Luther Northwestern Seminary had died. No longer could I enjoy visits with Paul and gain inspiration from them.

It was my good fortune that Dr. Sonnack became interim advisor for my Church History thesis at Luther Northwestern. He never flagged in his warmth and support, and in the process, he became my good friend. So, I was fortunate that, near the end of his life, I was added to those who have been deeply blessed by his life, conversation, and Christian fellowship. I shall miss our meetings very much and I celebrate the meetings we had.

Paul was raised in the Lutheran Free Church, and he graduated from Augsburg College and Theological Seminary in 1945. After serving in the parish ministry and studying at the University of Chicago, he began teaching at Augsburg in 1949. During our visits he often spoke of his appreciation for his studies at Chicago. Sidney Mead and Bernard Meland were among his teachers. He was a historian, and American History was the focus of his attention. Dr. Sonnack came to Luther Theological Seminary as Professor of American Church History in 1967; and, after the merger with Northwestern, he continued in that capacity at Luther Northwestern until his retirement in 1989.

Paul never lost his convictions about the centrality of spiritual life and, in fact, stood for its emphasis in the face of increasing institutionalization in the Lutheran Church. He was tough- minded and had little time for anti-intellectualism or fundamentalism. He said to me many times that he liked Pietisten because it combined an honest intellectual approach with warm-hearted pietism. Paul was a solid supporter of Pietisten confirming that Pietisten is more than a denominational paper. I always left the Sonnack home feeling encouraged.

Paul, Evelyn, and their son John spent a sabbatical year in Norway where Paul studied at the Universitetbibliotek. He told me that he focused his research on the sermons of four pietist preachers of the Haugian revival in Norway—a pietist Lutheran movement of similar spirit to the Rosenian conventicles. Rosenius was read widely among these people. Paul also told me that Dagliga Betraktelser (Daily Meditations) by Rosenius had a special place on the coffee table in his parents’ home.

Even when weakened by his condition, Paul was passionate and filled with fire about his convictions—convictions that were rooted in faith, genuine piety, and extensive reading and thinking. The fire was kindled very deep within him. Throughout his illness, well aware of the prognosis, Paul read steadily. He called my attention to a number of books. It was he who introduced me to A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.

Paul had looked forward to his retirement with plans to enjoy some time travelling with his wife Evelyn and to work on a history of the Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis of which they have been faithful and devoted members.

Paul told me that Trinity, which is beginning to celebrate 125 years of ministry, was the mother congregation of the Norwegian Lutheran Free Church. The church was strong and very influential. It was the formative force in the beginnings of Augsburg College.

Urban and suburban changes had impact on Trinity. When redevelopment and highway construction began in the neighborhood, the church building was sold and the congregation arranged to share the facilities of Riverside Presbyterian Church. As time passed, Trinity began to redefine its ministry. The congregation decided to put its resources into ministries rather than a building. When Riverside Presbyterian was sold to the Peoples’ Center, arrangements were made to worship in nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Now the congregation worships in Hoversten Chapel at Augsburg College. Through all these changes Trinity has been and is a vital congregation. Indeed, its official name is Trinity Lutheran Congregation which reveals the congregation’s self-understanding.

One primary purpose for the funds from the sale of the church property was to develop community housing on block 185 in Cedar Riverside. This vision has finally been realized with the construction of Karenplatz on Riverside Avenue.

Paul once told me that he would be ready to die when that project became a reality. He was deeply pleased when construction began. The project has become a reality and, we are sorry to say, Dr. Sonnack did die.

He died peacefully in the presence of his wife and son. In the. final week of his life, Evelyn said, he polished the silver for her. He felt sorry that his illness had prevented them from enjoying their retirement plans as they had dreamed. But in spite of the disappointment, Evelyn graciously loved and cared for Paul until the end.

May God bless and comfort Paul’s wife Evelyn and son John, the rest of his family, and the many who loved and respected him.

Our Teacher

With a burst of energy he would meet us at the door


with a twinkle in his eye,

loyal to the Gospel
to truth, to justice

and he would Teach!

as if our lives depended on it 

(and they did)

empowering us to ask why,

pounding the desk so that we might know he cared,

reminding us to look more deeply

and to love life for the gift it is.

This tall, resonant man

carried the Word in a smile

and an eager mind.

No wonder they named him Paul!

for Paul Sonnack
 by Judith Mattison, 1992