Thomas Aikenhead (c. March 1676 – 8 January 1697) was a Scottish student from Edinburgh, who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20 on a charge of blasphemy. He was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. This was 85 years after the death of Edward Wightman (1612), the last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England.
Aikenhead was indicted in December 1696. The indictment read:
That ... the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.
Trial and sentence
The case was prosecuted by the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart (grandfather of the future Jacobite economist Steuart), who demanded the death penalty to set an example to others who might otherwise express such opinions in the future.
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.
On the morning of 8 January 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 on the road between Edinburgh and Leith. He was said to have died Bible in hand, "with all the Marks of a true Penitent".
Thomas Babington Macaulay said of Aikenhead's death that "the preachers who were the poor boy's murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and. . . insulted heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything he had uttered."
Aikenhead was the last person hanged for blasphemy in Britain.
References and notes
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Thomas Aikenhead.|
- Andrew Hill Thomas Aikenhead Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography monograph at website of Unitarian Universalist Association, c.1999
- Age 20 is inferred from Hill's acceptance of approximate baptismal date
- Proceedings against Thomas Aikenhead for Blasphemy - Text of indictment at Google Books from T. B. Howell (editor): A complete collection of state trials and proceedings for high treason and other crimes and misdemeanors from the earliest period to 1783, with notes and other illustrations, Volume 13, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1816
- Brown, Henry H. "Old Scots Law of Blasphemy." Jurid. Rev. 30 (1918): 56+
- Graham, Michael F. The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment (2008), scholarly study excerpt and text search
- Hunter, Michael. "‘Aikenhead the Atheist’: The Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century." Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (1992) pp: 221-54.
- Pringle, Helen Are we capable of offending God? Taking blasphemy seriously Ch 3 of Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society at ANU E Press (originated at a conference in 2004)
- Broadside account concerning trials and executions for 'Witchcraft, Adultery, Fornication, &c. &c John Muir, printer, Princes Street, Edinburgh, 1826; at National Library of Scotland
- Thomas Aikenhead Commentary at pp 5-8 (fol. 442-44) of Letter, Rev. Robert Wyllie to the Laird of Wishaw, 16 June 1697; at Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1876