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Everyone knows who Martin Luther was, but Philipp of Hesse? One reason why Philipp is not well known, even among Lutherans, is that although he was a contemporary and ally of Martin Luther, his ethical choices were and still are questionable. Non-scholars have for 500 years put a kind of scarlet letter next to Philipp’s name and mention only his moral lapses when including him in the Reformation narrative.  

And yet, Rev. John Helke has written a book on the controversial figure. He will be signing his new book, Philipp of Hesse: Unlikely Hero of the Reformation, from 2 to 4 p.m. on Dec. 9 at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 Madison St. He will also participate in an Independents Day singing at the same store on Nov. 24 from 12 to 2 p.m. 

But why would an upstanding Lutheran pastor who has been married for 55 years write a biography of a man who brought disgrace on Luther himself? 

Here’s what happened.

In the 1970s Helmke, of Forst Park, learned more about Philipp of Hesse when he was doing graduate work on Reformation history at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Contrary to everything he heard, Helmke was intrigued by Philipp’s reputation among scholars for being the most tolerant Lutheran prince of his time. 

In his book, Helmke describes how in 1524, when Philipp turned Lutheran at the age of 20, he wasn’t playing politics. He was putting his life on the line. 

Philipp, who was born in 1504, was the ruling prince of Hesse, one of the most powerful states of the Holy Roman Empire. Geographically Hesse was about the size of the state of Massachusetts. In those days there was no separation of church and state. Once Philipp decided to follow Luther he did not wait long before declaring all the people of Hesse to be Lutheran. Those that objected could emigrate. 

Philipp’s political leadership of the Lutheran princes of the Reformation was confirmed in 1526, when he was only 22 and went unchallenged for 14 years. He was able to form a working relationship with Prince John Frederick, and together they formed an alliance called the Schmalkaldic League to defend Protestant Germany when the Emperor, Charles V, attacked. 

He was eventually captured by Charles V and imprisoned from 1547 till 1552. The Emperor promised to free Philipp if he would abandon his Protestant faith. But that Philipp would never do.  

In a sense, Helmke’s book is an attempt to set the record straight, to provide some balance to the narrative being told about Philipp.

He pointed out that readers of his biography of Philipp will see parallels between the ideological polarization of our times and the religious divisions of the Sixteenth Century.

So why did Helmke wait so long to write Philipp’s biography? The answer is quite simple. Life happened. Time to write and funds needed to support his family ran out by 1980. Helmke and wife Nancy’s two children, John Jr. and, Catherine Hegarty, who is now a Forest Park resident, were fast approaching college age. Lacking a call to serve as the pastor of another congregation, Helmke found meaningful employment as a District Representative for Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL) — now Thrivent Financial — and was able to retire with full benefits in 1998. 

In 2004 he also retired from full-time parish ministry.

Regarding his retirement, Helmke said, “I am blessed. I don’t need to write to put food on the table. I write because writing is my passion, a most precious gift of God to be desired and enjoyed by all.”

Helmke is already at work on a second book which will include the biographies of about six of Luther’s closest supporters and friends.