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January 8: The Last Execution for Blasphemy?

Thomas Aikenhead Executed for Blasphemy (1697)

It was on this date, January 8, 1697, that Edinburgh University student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy in Scotland. Thomas was born in March 1676 and baptized on the 28th. His upbringing is obscure, except that he was the son of an educated father and that he was an orphaned by age 10. Nevertheless, in 1693, he found himself studying at Edinburgh University, as a 17-year-old medical student. The University library may have been his undoing, because it is clear that Thomas read books by Descartes, Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes and other freethinkers, such as the pantheist Michael Servetus (executed for his opinions in 1553) and Irish rationalist John Toland, whose 1696 book, Christianity Not Mysterious, was burned by the hangman.

Thomas was all of 20 years old when he was arrested. His crime, according to the Lord Advocate of the Crown, was irreverence toward the sacred state religion of England and its many sacred elements. That he claimed “theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense”; that he called “the Old Testament Ezra's fables”; that he “called the New Testament the history of the imposter 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.” There is no indication that the injured party – God – appeared to claim injury. The clergy wanted him dead. The law allowed the punishment. God was silent.

According to Leviticus 24:16, “anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him.” But instead of stoning, and in spite of an attempt by Thomas to recant to save his own young life, in spite of the fact that this was a first offense and the offender was so young. On the gallows, knowing he could not stop the will of the priest interpreting the will of God, Thomas stated his belief that moral laws were devised by humans rather than any divinity.

The accounts of his trial say that Thomas had no counsel and the only witnesses were those appearing against him, including classmates that had heard his drunken blasphemies while partying with him. The Lord Advocate, impelled by the clergy, “called for blood” and Thomas was ordered hanged – not by the God he insulted, but by human beings with the legal power to do such things. As described by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, "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."

We do not know if god-belief or the Trinity would have long survived the assaults of Thomas Aikenhead, so we can be sure it is a good thing that we have priests with no other useful function than to protect us. So Thomas Aikenhead, barely old enough to sign a legal contract, was executed for offending human beings, not any skygod. And he was the last person to be executed for blasphemy in the Western world.

Originally published January 2010.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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