Agnes Prest of Exeter: Protestant Pride
I often reflect that American Protestants owe a lot to England. Were it not for England first settling the northeast and allowing foreign Protestants to settle there as well, we very likely would not be living in America today. In fact, if our much-maligned Huguenot and Anabaptist ancestors had been forced to remain in Europe and would have suffered the same fates that many of their friends and relatives suffered, many of us would not even exist. Scary thought! With that realization in mind, I chose an English martyr to study, honor, and remember.
Her name was Agnes Prest, and by the time 1557 rolled around, the last few years must have been confusing to her. England had gone from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic in a very short time. Agnes took comfort in the “new faith” and embraced the Protestant Reformation . . . just when she believed it was safe to do so, as boy king Edward VI and many of his successive advisors had been Protestant as well, Queen Mary’s Catholic regime sought her out. Agnes was an honest woman who did not hesitate to speak her mind. A spinner by trade, she was Cornish by birth, setting up shop in Exeter. Yet even her quaint abode could not cheer her.
Agnes was married to a staunch Catholic and felt trapped in a household that espoused a religion she did not believe. Thus she fled her home to practice her Protestant faith freely. She lived with close companions and delved into the world of entrepreneurialism, pushing her rising troubles out of her mind when possible. As the 16th century did not allow for such freedom, she was dragged back, and legal troubles ensued. Launceton prison became her home.
“Heresy” was a word no one wanted to hear. That word meant death. Yet many, like Agnes, may have worn it as a badge of pride. It meant “being different.” Breaking the mold. Refusing to accept an official religion just for the sake of acceptance. The word “heresy,” from the Greek word haireisthai, actually means “a taking or choosing, a choice,” and that is what Protestants of this era did. They chose to break away and follow their consciences. They chose to die instead of living in what they considered error. Many lion-like men and women were produced during this time.
It was a hot August day in 1557 when Agnes’ fate was decided: she would be burned, a fate many Protestants during Mary’s reign had already undergone. She could have submitted to her husband’s faith. She could have kept quiet. But when she saw injustice, she spoke out. When she witnessed a practice she believed to be unscriptural, she protested.
Today there is a memorial dedicated to Agnes Prest and other Protestant martyrs in the English town of Exeter. Simple yet commanding, it puts one in mind of the sort of monument you might see on a battlefield --- a tall shaft with a descriptive plaque and a simple stone base surrounded by sparse trees and pavement. In a few days’ time, few strangers remembered Agnes’ name. Yet she lived on in spirit for her refusal to accept the status quo simply to regain favor. Like many early martyrs, her last words served to demean her enemies and to give courage to those who would follow in her footsteps: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith Christ. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and he that believeth in Me shall never die."
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved