Thomas Aikenhead (baptised 28 March 1676 – 8 January 1697), a Scottish student from Edinburgh,[1] was the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain, and probably the first in Scotland.[2] He was the son of James Aikenhead (died in or before 1683), an apothecary and burgess of Edinburgh, and his wife Helen Ramsey (died 1685), a clergyman’s daughter.[1] Following the deaths of his parents, Aikenhead was left an orphan at the age of nine, and was assisted financially by Sir Patrick Aikenhead, whose exact relationship with the young boy is uncertain.[3]

At the age of 16 Aikenhead enrolled at Edinburgh’s town college, now part of the University of Edinburgh, where he matriculated in 1693.[4] He was in the third year of his subsequent studies when his unconventional views on religion brought him to the attention of the authorities. He was summoned before the Scottish privy council on 10 November 1696 charged with blasphemy, and remitted for trial.[1]

Trial


At his trial on 23 December 1696 Aikenhead was indicted under two Acts of the Scottish parliament. One of 1661 prescribing the death penalty for blasphemous utterances, and a more lenient 1695 Act, which prescribed milder punishments for the first and second such offences, the sentence of death only following a third conviction.[1] Aikenhead had evidently been involved in “spirited conversations” with his fellow students on matters of religion, as five of them testified against him;[5] one of the five, Mungo Craig, may have been the originator of the complaint to the authorities.[1]

Some of the specific charges against Aikenhead were that he had ridiculed the biblical scriptures as being “stuffed with maddness, nonsense, and contradictions”, describing the Old Testament as “Ezra’s fables”,[a]Perhaps a reference to the medieval Jewish philosopher Abraham ibn Ezra, who cast doubt on the authorship of the Old Testament, and whom Aikenhead could have been familiar with via the works of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.[1] the New Testament as “the History of the Impostor Christ”, and challenging Christ’s divinity, claiming that his miracles were merely “pranks”.[1]

Execution


The privy council relented to the extent of offering to grant Aikenhead a reprieve on condition that the Church of Scotland agreed, but the Church refused, on the basis that it was necessary to put an end to the “abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”.[6] Consequently, on 8 January 1697, Aikenhead was marched from Edinburgh to Leith, where he was hanged.[1]

The historian and Whig politician 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.”[7] The historian Harry Dickinson has noted that the Aikenhead case, together with that of Janet HorneAlleged name of the last person to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, in 1727., the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Britain, demonstrated that the tide was turning against “hard line uncompromising Calvinism” in Scotland.[8]

Notes[+]

Citations



Bibliography


Graham, Michael F. The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Hunter, Michael. “Aikenhead, Thomas (Bap. 1676, d. 1697).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/225.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from Accession of James II. 1856.
Nash, David S. “The Uses of a Martyred Blasphemer’s Death: The Execution of Thomas Aikenhead, Scotland’s Religion, the Enlightnment and Contemporary Activism.” Law, Crime and Deviance since 1700: Micro-Studies in the History of Crime, edited by David S. Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday.
Pringle, Helen. “Are We Capable of Offending God? Taking Blasphemy Seriously.” Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society, ANU Press, 2006, pp. 31–42, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbjjq.1.