Thomas Aikenhead was the last man to be executed for blasphemy in Britain, so what is his story?
In the 1690’s Thomas Aikenhead was, a young Edinburgh medical student at a time when his University’s library held books by Descartes, Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes and other thinkers, and being a keen student young Thomas would often enjoy reading new ideas.
He later talked about some of his reading with friends, and unfortunately one of them, possibly Mungo Craig, took offense and informed on him to the authorities. In the autumn of 1696 Thomas was arrested and remitted to the Tolbooth Prison “to be tryed for his life” for blasphemy. He mouldered there until December 23, when he crossed Parliament Square to the High Court to be charged under both of Scotland’s Blasphemy Acts, one enacted before and one after the Revolution of 1689.
The Blasphemy Laws at that Time
There was a 1661 Act that ordained death for anyone “not being distracted in his wits” who shall “rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein.” There was also a later 1695 Act which confirmed the earlier act, but graduated its penalties: first offense, imprisonment and sackcloth; second offense, imprisonment, sackcloth, and a fine; third offense, death.
The charges against him
The charges were that for more than twelve months Aikenhead had blasphemed against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and all revealed religion. Five student ‘friends’ appeared as prosecution witnesses. Aikenhead was accused of having said that theology was “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” and made up of “poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras”. It was reported that he had called the Old Testament “Ezra’s Fables” and the New Testament “the History of the impostor Christ who learned magic in Egypt and picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows”. The ‘friends’ told the court that Aikenhead rejected the Trinity as “not worth any man’s refutation”, scoffed at the incarnation as contradictory, professed pantheism, and denied creation. They further reported that he had declared that he preferred Mohammed to Jesus and hoped to see Christianity soon extirpated. Finally, he was accused of having wished, when cold, to warm in Hell.
With friends like these, who needs enemies. He does also sound very much like a chap who would have been at home within our community; sadly this was the 1690’s
No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: “that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures.” He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January.
Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council to consider his “deplorable circumstances and tender years.” Also, he had forgotten to mention that he was also a first time offender. Two ministers and two Privy Councillors pleaded on his behalf, but to no avail. On January 7, after another petition, the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”. Thus Aikenhead’s sentence was confirmed.
His Final Words and Execution
On the morning of January 8, 1697, Thomas wrote to his ‘friends’ that
“it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure. . . So I proceeded until the more I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired. . .”
Aikenhead may have read this letter outside the Tolbooth, before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows.
Notes for further information