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Thomas Aikenhead - Scotland's Last Dead Blasphemer

Obviously, the title is a bit misleading. Blasphemers have been dying for their views for as long as there have been gods to blaspheme against. Judicial murder for the crime of blasphemy continues to this day in many countries around the world. The list of places where extrajudicial murder for the same crime occurs is even longer.

Western nations like to think of themselves as very socially advanced. This has always been true, even when things were much darker. Take Scotland, right before the Scottish Enlightenment for example.

33 Years before an eruption of cultural advancement that would place Edinburgh at the top of the Western cultural pyramid, there was a young man drinking with his friends.

Thomas Aikenhead would become the last person executed for Blasphemy in Great Britain.

Thomas Aikenhead - Lad Without a Lid

Thomas Aikenhead stands on the steps of Tron Kirk
I guess thinking is illegal

Everyone who has gone to University and actually engaged with the intellectual environment there has experienced the intoxicating ambrosia of Academia. New ideas, older than our eldest elders, can spring upon a ripe mind in the prime of youth.

Exposure to concepts and notions outside our cultural norms is generally a good thing. It leads to more robust thinkers, and was the original intention when the idea of "higher learning" first came about.

These ideas can be dangerous though. Should you find yourself born in a conservative culture with deep convictions, they can even prove to be fatal. Blasphemy is a fine line. Invisible to those that tread it, as it depends on the sensitivities of others.

Thomas Aikenhead was the son of an apothecary from Edinburgh. His early life was unremarkable, as was most of his education. On his mother's side, he was the grandson of a clergyman.

He attended the University of Edinburgh at the end of the 17th Century. There he was exposed to the growing number of Atheist intellectuals writing down their views. Dangerous radicals like René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, both of whom are considered very moderate today.

Rene Descartes doing a kickflip
Dangerously radical

In October 1696, a bookkeeper named John Frazer, was arrested on charges of light blasphemy. He was charged with a few months in prison, and made to renounce his views publicly. His views were recorded as such:

"there was no god to whom men owed that reverence worship and obedience so much talked of, and more to the point that the beliefs in established religion were made to frighten folks and to keep them in order"

Thomas Aikenhead was likely aware of the case, and as was his habit, discussed it in the beer halls of Edinburgh. He was known among his friends for railing against the strict Theism of the time, and would often claim that the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, was not divine. Believing instead that he was merely a skilled magician with a knack for public speaking.

Unfortunately for Thomas, his friends were not all as loyal and freethinking as he assumed. In a strangely allegorical coincidence, there was a Judas among them. Thomas would soon find himself at the mercy of the court.

Mungo Craig, a man born with either a traitor's, or fictional cat's name, had enough of young Aikenhead. One chilly evening in August, Thomas would offend Mungo greatly.

Standing on the steps of Tron Kirk after an evening of heavy drinking and philosophical debate, Thomas Aikenhead made an unforgivable declaration. Mungo Craig would ruminate on the Aikenhead's heinous words for two months before reporting him to the authorities.

Thomas proclaimed that he would rather be warming himself in hell than shivering in the bitter cold of Edinburgh. Mungo Craig just couldn't get over it.

Agents of the court rounded Thomas Aikenhead up, and took him to Tollbooth Prison. There, he likely met Frazer, whose fate he likely expected to share. Light imprisonment, followed by a public apology.

Leniency was not on the agenda for Thomas Aikenhead.

The Trial of Scotland's Blasphemous Martyr

Martyrs throughout history are famous for dying without recanting their beliefs. Those beliefs are usually religious in nature. If you can believe that any belief is worth dying for, then Thomas Aikenhead is a martyr for Atheism.

The court threw the book at Aikenhead. He was charged under two separate Blasphemy Acts. The first, from 1661 prescribed a sentence of death for any who curse or deny God and continue obstinately therein. He was offered a glimmer of hope by the second Blasphemy Act. The 1695 Blasphemy Act broke punishment up into three tiers.

Tier 1 was for first time offenders. They were to be sackclothed and imprisoned. Repeat offenders would be fined, and should the offender blaspheme for a third time, they were to be executed.

Frazer had been charged under the 1695 Act. Aikenhead was to be made an example of. He was charged as a repeat offender, despite this being his first offence.

Two days before Christmas of 1696, Thomas Aikenhead arrived at the High Court. Sir James Stewart, the Lord Advocate, demanded the death penalty for the 20-year-old Aikenhead.

Stewart accused Aikenhead of regularly stating that:

"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."

Five of Thomas Aikenhead's friends testified against him. Chief among them was the rat bastard, Mungo Craig. Their testimony was enough for the court to find Aikenhead guilty of Blasphemy most foul on 24 December 1696.

Thomas Aikenhead, despite several appeals to the Privy Council, and the Church of Scotland, was to be executed on January 8, 1697. The Church of Scotland replied to his appeal with a demand that he be vigorously executed to curb the impiety rampant in Scotland.

He was made to walk for an hour out of Edinburgh, to the place where the Gallows had been constructed. Godly men surrounded him, triumphantly marching the child to his death for daring to espouse thoughts against their own.

Along the way, Aikenhead was allowed to read out his last words:

"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…"

Thomas Aikenhead climbed the steps to the Gallows, surrounded by sneering priests and ministers, around 2pm on 8 January 1697. He was hung by the neck until dead.

There would never again be an execution for the crime of Blasphemy in Great Britain.



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