Lawrence N. Woodworth, 59, a self-effacing minister's son under whose quiet guidance most of the federal tax laws of the past 15 years were written, died yesterday in a Newport News, Va., hospital.

Mr. Woodworth, who at the time of his death was assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy and President Carter's ranking adviser on tax matters, suffered a stroke during breakfast last Sunday while attending a tax conference at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Before joining the administration last February, he had spent 32 years on the staff of Congress' Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, the last 14 years as its director.

That little-known joint committee, whose staff is one of the most respected at the Capitol, drafts all tax legislation for both House and Senate.

Mr. Woodworth, however, was more than a draftsman. Though it pained him to have it said in public, he guided the tax-writing committees of House and Senate at least as much as he followed their direction.

Woodworth's method, when a major bill came before one of the tax committees, was to consult privately and in advance with the chairman and other leading member, then present legislation to the committee with a series of "suggestions." His stature and reputation for fairness were such that these suggestions frequently became the law.

He knew the tax code cold, and would sometimes use that knowledge to help a member who became tangled in one of his own proposals. But he would also use it - always politely - to shoot down a member whose proposals he thought excessive.

Mr. Woodworth was fond of reporters as a group, and it became a tradition that after every meeting of a tax committee, he would hold an impromptu news conference to explain what the committee had done. But he wanted almost always to remain anonymous.

House-Senate conferees on the energy tax bill paused in prayer yesterday at the news that Mr. Woodworth had died. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) said in a statement: "In his quiet way, he was as much an influence in shaping tax policy in this country as any committee chairman or Treasury secretary or President in recent memory."

President Carter also issued a statement, mourning Mr. Woodworth as one of the country's "most dedicated public servants."

Mr. Woodworth, who never regained consciousness after suffering the stroke in Williamburg, had in recent months been working nearly non-stop on the administration's various tax bills, including the "reform" bill that Carter intends to send to Congress for action nearly next year.

Born in Loudenville, Ohio, on March 22, 1918, the son of a Baptist minister. Laurence Neal Woodworth was a studious man who was fascinated with the tax system and dedicated to tax law.

Frequently working 16-hour days, he led the Congressional Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation to a high degree of professional and non partisan performance that ultimately became a standard in both houses of Congress.

It was under his direction that the Committee staff developed its detailed report on former President Nixon's tax returns in 1974 - a document that was praised for its thoroughness and fairness by both Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Woodworth graduated from Ohio Northern University in 1940, and earned a master of science degree in public administration from the University of Denver in 1942.

In 1960, while working for the Joint Committee, he earned a doctoral degree in public administration and economics from New York University.

Often turning down well paying offers from private firms, Mr. Woodworth preferred government service, where he was able to satisfy a long line of sometimes demanding committee chairmen. It was Mr. Woodworth who engineered most of the major compromises on tax legislation in recent years.

As a congressional tax expert, Mr. Woodworth was cited several times for public service, receiving both the Rockefeller Award sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the National Civil Service League award.

In his spare time, he was active in local civic affairs, serving as mayor of Cheverly from 1959 to 1965, and before that as a City Council member for nine years. He told a friend once that after a long debate on a tax bill, "It just does me good to walk around and talk to people about local problems."

He was also active in the Methodist church, serving as a Sunday school teacher, and in the Boy Scouts.

Survivors include his wife, the former Margaret Bretz, of the home in Cheverly, and four children, Laurence S., of Greenbelt, Joseph Ray, of Albuquerque, N.M., Melissa, of Syracuse, N.Y., and Esther, of the Washington area.

The family suggests that expression of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Laurence N. Woodworth Memorial Scholarship Fund at Ohio Northern University, Ada. Ohio, 45805.