Thomas Aikenhead

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On 8 January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead (baptised 28 March 1678 - 1697), a young medical student, "son to the deceest James Aikenhead, chirurgeon in Edinburgh," was hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh.[1] In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, he was "hanged for a piece of boyish incredulity".[2] He was the last person to be executed for blasphemy in the UK.

In 1693, Thomas Aikenhead matriculated from the University of Edinburgh, whose library included books by Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes and other so-called atheists. While Thomas was a student, Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious was added, as was Michael Servetus's Christianisimi Restitutio. In 1696 the Scottish Privy Council ordered a search for books deemed "atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious" in the stock of Edinburgh booksellers.

Accusation and Trial

The accusation against Aikenhead arose from opinions voiced in casual conversation with friends who reported him to the authorities for blasphemy. This led to his prosecution under a Restoration law. Aikenhead's chief accuser was a fellow student, Mungo Craig, who printed a tract entitled A SATYR against Atheistical-Deism, with the Genuine Character of a Deist. To-which is Prefixt, An account of Mr Aikinhead's Notions, who is now in Prison for the same Damnable Apostacy.[3]

Having been apprehended and imprisoned in the Tolbooth Prison, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, Thomas was remitted to the High Court of Justiciary on 23d December 1696, by a special Act of Privy Council, for trial upon a charge for breach of two Acts of Parliament "against the crime of Blasphemy".

The 1661 Act prescribed the sentence of death for anyone "not being distracted in his wits" who shall "rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein". The 1695 Act graduated its penalties, specifying imprisonment and sackcloth for a first offence; imprisonment, sackcloth and a fine for a second offence; and death for a third offence.

Aikenhead retracted the views attributed to him, but the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged on 8 January.[4] Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council to consider his "deplorable circumstances and tender years", and because he had forgotten to mention that his was a first offence. On 7 January the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded. However, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land".[5]

Aikenhead's Indictment

Aikenhead's 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 Mahomet 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".


Aikenhead left a speech, expressing penitence. It did him little good in this life, he was swifly hanged.

"And I cannot, without doing myself a manifest injury, but viudicat my innocence from those" abominable aspersions in a printed Satyr of Mr Mungo Craig's, who was an evidence against me; whom I leave to reckon with God and his own conscience, if he was not as deeply concerned in those hellish notions (for which I am sentenced) as ever I was; however, I bless the Lord, I forgive him and all men, and wishes the Lord may forgive him likewise. To conclude, as the Lord in his providence hath been pleased in this examplary manner to punish my great sins, so it is my earnest desire to him, that my blood may give a stop to that rageing spirit of Atheism which hath taken such footing in Britain, both in practice and profession."

Lord Macaulay [6] described the scene of execution thus:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered. [7]

References

  1. "Thomas Aikenhead for denying the Trinity, and the authority of the Scriptures and for maintaing the Eternity of the world, was found guilty and sentenced 'To be taken to the Gallow-fee on the 8th of January, 1697, between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, and to be hanged, his body to be buried at the foot of the gallows and his moveable estate to be forfeited' —Mercy was asleep a well as Justice and Science; so the dreadful sentence was executed!"Broadside account concerning trials and executions for 'Witchcraft, Adultery, Fornication, &c. &c.', 1826
  2. Edingburgh Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  3. [http://worldcat.org/wcpa/top3mset/10638417 A satyr against atheistical deism with the genuine character of a deist : to which is prefixt an account of Mr. Aikenhead's notions, who is now in prison for the same damnable apostacy. by Mungo Craig. Edinburgh : Printed for Robert Hutchison, 1696.
    • A lye is no scandal. Or a vindication of Mr. Mungo Craig from a ridiculous calumny cast upon him by T.A. who was executed for apostacy at Edinburgh, the 8 of January, 1697. by Mungo Craig. Written, January 15, 1697.
  4. A full report was published in the Collection of State Trials by T. B. Howell, vol. xiii. 1812. The case was also reported in Maclaurin's "Criminal Cases", p.12, Edinburgh, 1774; and in Hugo Arnot's "Celebrated Criminal Trials", p. 322, Edinburgh, 1785.
  5. Thomas Aikenhead Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
  6. (History of England, vol. iv. p. 781, 1855,)
  7. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1876