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Goethe, Matthias (1827–1876)

by S. M. Tarnay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Matthias Goethe (1827-1876), Lutheran pastor, was born on 29 March 1827 at Neuendorf, near Koblenz, Germany, son of Heinrich Goethe, public servant. He was trained for the Catholic priesthood but at 20 became a Protestant, went to England, met John Dunmore Lang and married Harriett Alice Wells. They sailed in the Clifton to Sydney where on 1 April 1850 Goethe was appointed teacher of mathematics and modern languages at the Australian College and on 9 October he and David Blair were ordained by Lang. In Sydney Goethe conducted religious services in German and French.

In 1852 Goethe went to Melbourne seeking relief from asthma. He held his first German Lutheran service on Christmas Day at the St Enoch’s United Presbyterian Church, Collins Street; soon afterwards members of the German Lutheran community asked him to become their pastor. His induction on 25 March 1853 was conducted by seven English ministers of various denominations. Goethe thus became the first Lutheran minister and founder of the Lutheran congregation in Victoria. The government donated land at Eastern Hill and £1500 towards building a church; it was completed and dedicated on 11 June 1854. Goethe founded congregations in Grovedale, Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine, and also held regular services at Hawthorn, Doncaster and other places near Melbourne. In 1856 he went to Moreton Bay and induced three German missionaries to move to Victoria, thus giving Bendigo, Ballarat and Grovedale their first resident pastors. In that year Goethe formed the first Lutheran Synod of Victoria and became its president, holding office till 1867. He visited Germany in 1857 to recruit Lutheran ministers and teachers for Victoria. By 1860 Lutheran services were held regularly at Melbourne, Grovedale, Ballarat, Bendigo, Tarrington, Thomastown, Berwick and Doncaster, with schools at each centre except Ballarat and Doncaster. Goethe also sought union between the South Australian and Victorian synods but could not overcome the differences on doctrinal questions. In Victoria Goethe worked for co-operation between Protestant denominations, accepted state aid for his church and schools and encouraged Germans to learn English and mix with other settlers. He also made English compulsory in his schools. He edited the first Lutheran monthly paper in Victoria, Der Pilger in Viktoria (1853-56). In 1860 he founded Der Australische Christenbote, which appeared monthly for fifty years with Goethe as its editor till 1867. He had published a German calendar in 1854.

In 1867 Goethe left Melbourne for California where he founded the first Lutheran congregation in Sacramento and stayed for eight years. Then he moved to Mexico City where he preached in Spanish and translated the Lutheran catechism into that language. He died on 27 October 1876, survived by his wife and four children.

Although hampered by ill health, Goethe was a good preacher, an accomplished writer, a remarkable linguist and an effective organizer. He taught the virtues of hard work and moral rectitude, the value of education and good citizenship. His own words, 'Nothing is of more moral value, than to foster tolerance even when opinions conflict', sum up the guiding principle of his life.

Select Bibliography

  • Die Deutsch-Evangelische Kirche in Australien (Berlin, 1857)
  • H. Herlitz (ed), Festschrift … Evangelische-lutherischen Synode von Victoria (Melb, 1907)
  • Th. Hebart, The United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Australia, J. J. Stolz ed (Adel, 1938)
  • A. Brauer, Under the Southern Cross: History of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (Adel, 1956)
  • private information.

Citation details

S. M. Tarnay, 'Goethe, Matthias (1827–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goethe-matthias-3625/text5633, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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