Thomas Aikenhead – Last Person to Be Executed For Blasphemy in Britain
Thomas Aikenhead was hanged as the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain in 1697, according to Graham’s archivally informed historical writing. She vividly captures university and city life where educated skepticism of commonplace Protestant doctrine and beliefs was transformed into moral panic by bigoted priests.
Early Life and Education
At 20 years of age, Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh for expressing anti church views in public places like taverns and coffee houses – something which caused much religious anxiety at that time.
The indictment against Aikenhead contained allegations that he had dismissed theology as a form of invented nonsense; denied the divine origins of Christianity; and promoted anticlericalism. Furthermore, Aikenhead had advocated forms of antitrinitarianism, opposition to divine revelation, and naturalistic materialism – which all led to fundamental anticlericalism among his followers.
Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council in an effort to have his “deplorable circumstances and tender years” taken into consideration; but his petition was fruitless as the Council ruled it would only grant relief if someone from church interceded on his behalf; two ministers and two Privy Councillors attempted to appeal on his behalf but this too proved fruitless.
Thomas Aikenhead was a student of divinity who adopted the atheism of European radical thought and started discussing it publicly – including over tankards at Edinburgh taverns and even on the steps of Tron Kirk! Unfortunately for Aikenhead this act would cost him dearly; he would become one of only three individuals ever executed in Britain for violating blasphemy laws.
Murdo Craig kept discreet notes against Aikenhead, later turning against him at trial. Due to financial hardships and inability to hire legal representation for himself at his trial, Aikenhead defended himself himself during court proceedings.
I Am Thomas offers an insight into seventeenth-century Edinburgh and Scotland, tracing key historical themes as Scotland transitioned from confessional Reformation to polite Enlightenment. Additionally, it illuminates Aikenhead’s case legacy.
Achievement and Honors
Tom Aikenhead was an unconventional freethinker in an age dominated by religious faith, making his case an international news story and sparking heated discussions over its legal consequences. His story made waves in 17th-century Britain and reignited heated discussions regarding his punishment.
Aikenhead was only 20 when he was sentenced to be hanged for blasphemy. Accused of mocking scripture and disparaging Jesus as an impostor, Aikenhead asked the Privy Council to consider his dire circumstances and youthful age; unfortunately they denied this request and refused any reprieve from execution.
His execution served as a stark reminder of Presbyterian Scotland’s intolerance for religious scepticism and Enlightenment-era intellectualism, according to Arthur Herman’s description: it marked “the last gasp of Scotland’s Calvinist ayatollahs before reason rose up as an alternative.” Additionally, he was the first person executed for blasphemy in Great Britain.
Graham employs archive-driven historical writing to reconstruct university and town life in Aikenhead’s Edinburgh. Furthermore, he situates the trial within wider moral panics.
Aikenhead displayed an educated scepticism toward commonplace Protestant doctrine and convictions, openly voicing them in coffee houses and drinking dens. His beliefs mirrored philosophical debates of his day.
At times he made statements that could be taken as offensive and were seen by authorities as potentially sacrilegious, such as his claim that God, nature and humanity are one thing and that the Trinity in unity is an incoherence. Following this argument Mungo Craig compiled a list of Aikenhead’s statements before charging him under both 1661 law which carried death sentences as well as more recent acts which prescribed lesser penalties.
Tom Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University’s Theology department, became the last person executed under Scotland’s severe blasphemy laws on 8 January 1697. He had been accused of disliking the Bible claiming it contained unfeigned nonsense while mocking God with jokes about preferring hell over heaven.
He had fallen prey to an oppressive and superstitious culture. Unlike John Fraser, who was jailed for trying to establish an unsuccessful trading colony in Panama, Aikenhead did not have family or property connections to covenanting Christians or any significant wealth that might help his case.
Although not wealthy, Aikenhead was a man of considerable intellectual ambition who bravely stood up for free speech. Many consider him to be a martyr of modernism’s philosophy.