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Thomas Aikenhead


On 8th January 1697, 20-year-old Edinburgh University student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged from the city gallows. His crime was to have said in conversation that "Theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense" and that "The Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that [I admire] the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them". This was clearly blasphemous and, in a country, still dominated by the Calvinist Church of Scotland such offences were a deliberate affront to God's (or rather, the Kirk's) authority.

The years leading up to Thomas's execution were hard in Scotland. After the era known as The Killing Times following the English Civil War, rapid climate change, caused by several volcanoes in Indonesia and Iceland, resulted in crop failures and famine in the country. Scotland was run by a London based King with an English parliament indifferent to Scotland's needs. Despite this, a literate population - thanks to the church's demand that all boys be able to read the Bible - was absorbing books from the continent, among them Hobbes, Descartes & Spinoza who were all challenging religious doctrines and dogma. These publications were widely read, especially at the four Universities. The Kirk feared losing their grip on the morals of the country.

The punishment for Blasphemy had recently changed so that capital punishment should only occur for a third offence. However, after being found guilty and issued with a death sentence, and following several appeals, the Privy Council on the day before his execution would only grant a reprieve if the Kirk interceded for him. But the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, in session at the time, urged "vigorous execution to curb the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". The preachers crowded round him at the gallows to ensure the sentence was carried out according to contemporary reports. Just 15 years later David Hume - who was known as the Great Infidel - would be born in Edinburgh and the coming enlightenment would challenge the dogma and fanaticism that had blighted the country for so long. Aikenhead was the last person executed for Blasphemy in Britain

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