Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Christiane von Goethe and Roseinia Sylvester Jarvis: Part 1

Eminent Women: Christiane von Goethe and Roseinia Sylvester Jarvis: Part 1

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - February 20, 2012

Since the subject of baptisms for the dead has gotten some press recently, this may be a good place to mention that church policy is, and has been for years, that church members should do the temple work for their own ancestors and family, and close personal friends with the permission of their families.

The framework for these biographies is a snapshot of a particular time and place: Wilford Woodruff’s dream or vision about the Founding Fathers and his need to do their temple work in the recently-opened St. George Temple. Woodruff also had the work done for fifty eminent men of the world, and he noted in his diary that “Sister Lucy Bigelow Young went Forth into the font and was Baptized for Martha Washington and her family and seventy (70) of the Eminent women of the world.”

The series highlights the 61 women who helped Wilford Woodruff complete the temple work project. The women were from St. George, Utah, and some surrounding communities. The series also tells the story of the notable women whose work was done.

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Christiane Vulpius was born in Weimar in 1765. Weimar is now in Germany, but at the time it was the capital of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar. The rulers of the Duchy, Duchess Anna Amalia and then her son, Duke Charles Augustus, were patrons of the arts. Their court included many notable German scholars and artists including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. It was a vibrant and deeply intellectual time and place. It was also a place where members of the court and community gossiped constantly and discussed relationships endlessly, so much is known about the relationships of those in the court, although some of the stories may be no more accurate than gossip tends to be.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps best known in American culture as the author of Faust, a story about a scholar selling his soul to the devil. Goethe was a poet, an author, an artist, and a scientist.

As a member of court, Goethe sometimes received petitions seeking his influence in matters of court patronage. Christiane Vulpius’s brother was a minor author, and she promised to deliver a petition to Goethe for him. Goethe was 15 years older than she, but when the two met, they fell immediately in love.

Shortly after he returned from a trip to Italy, Christiane moved into Goethe’s household and within a year of their meeting, she had given birth to their son, August. They had four more children, but each died in infancy. From all accounts, they enjoyed a happy and affectionate home life.

Christiane was a small woman. She had limited education, but she was charming and practical and loved attending concerts and balls. Due to the irregularity of their relationship, Christiane was not accepted in society, and she did not appear as Goethe’s hostess at formal social events. But regardless of her exact relationship with Goethe, one author called her “an honest and loyal companion for life.”

During the Napoleonic Wars, French forces invaded and looted Weimar and invaded Goethe’s home:

Late at night they burst into his bedroom with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified, Christiane raised a lot of noise and even tangled with them, other people who had taken refuge in Goethe’s house rushed in, and so the marauders eventually withdrew again. It was Christiane who commanded and organized the defence of the house… Goethe noted in his diary: “Fires, rapine, a frightful night … Preservation of our house through steadfastness and luck.” The luck was Goethe’s, the steadfastness was displayed by Christiane…. Christiane, with whom he had by then been living for eighteen years, gave him support. So Goethe had the court preacher called; very quietly a marriage service was held in the court chapel ….

Although there continued to be scandal about their relationship even after their marriage, the marriage did make Christiane presentable in polite society and made her son Goethe’s legal heir. A glance into the relationship between the two survives in some lines Goethe wrote to the Duke shortly after their marriage:

First I have to tell you that my wife has not read one line of all my works. She cannot live in the world of the intellect. She is made for keeping house. In this regard she relieves me of all worries; this is her domain, her kingdom. In addition, she loves dressing up, she loves parties and going to the theatre. She is not without a certain level of culture which she has achieved in my company and by going to the theater.

Their lives together were complicated, but when Christiane died in 1816, her husband mourned her passing. He lived another 16 years, and in his final years, August’s wife, Ottilie von Goethe, cared for him.

* * *

When Wilford Woodruff had the temple work done for the great scholar and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roseinia Sylvester Jarvis did the work for Goethe’s “honest and loyal companion for life,” Christiane von Goethe.

Roseinia’s story will post tomorrow.

* * *

Here is a very approximate pronunciation guide to the names for non-German speakers. Christiane is pronounced “kris-tee-aw-nuh.” “Vulpius” is said “full-pe-oos.” Johann is said “yo-hawn.” “Wolfgang” is said “volf-gahng.” “Von” is said “fawn.” Goethe starts with a hard “g.” For the “oe” sound, round the lips as if to say “oh,” but make the vowel sound in the word “burn.” The “th” is pronounced “t,” and the final “e” is a very short “e.”



  1. Love this one, Amy. What a dramatic mix of a little housekeeping homebody (with, admittedly, a love of parties), and a ferocious fighting for that home! Or maybe it’s not a mix at all — defending her home rather than fleeing probably grew directly out of the way that home was the center of Christiane’s world. “Honest and loyal companion” — a fine reputation, that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 20, 2012 @ 10:42 am

  2. This story always cracked me up but it saddens my heart a little, too, to know that Goethe the man was something of a wuss.

    Comment by Steven L — February 20, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  3. Oh my, Steven L., I have been trying so hard to tell these stories straight and be respectful to all the characters involved that I entirely missed the comedic possibilities of Goethe in his “prophet’s cloak” (nightgown), cowering behind Christiane as the French soldiers charged up the stairs. And I’d better leave it at that since I am evidently in a silly mood.

    Seriously, though, looking at history from the side of the women can reveal a surprisingly different picture than you usually get in the overwhelmingly male-centric teaching of history and culture.

    Comment by Amy T — February 20, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

  4. Amy, you have done it again. Your research and detail in telling the story is wonderful. I look forward to reading more.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — February 20, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  5. Amy: Very nice. I am enjoying finding out who these women were. I have to say these lines make me sad:

    “First I have to tell you that my wife has not read one line of all my works. She cannot live in the world of the intellect. She is made for keeping house…”

    I wish he would have included her in his intellectual life.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — February 20, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  6. Great story. Thanks, Amy!

    Comment by kevinf — February 21, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  7. Thanks, Amy, this one was really interesting. And I’m so glad to finally know how to pronounce his name! I knew Go-eeth probably wasn’t right, but I wasn’t sure what was right.

    Comment by Marcelaine — February 29, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

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