1697: Thomas Aikenhead is executed. The 20 year old Scottish student from Edinburgh had been indicted in December 1696. He was charged with spreading blasphemy in a number of nefarious ways. He called theology ill-invented nonsense and compared the Bible to Aesop’s Fables and accused the Savior of having learned magic in Egypt which impressed locals farther East as miracles. He went so far as to say he admired Muhammad over Christ and claimed the Scriptures were madness, nonsense, and contradictions. He wondered at a world so easily led astray by such nonsense. This did not sit well with the clergy of the time.
The case was brought before Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart who demanded the death penalty for such egregious behavior. The idea was to set an example before any other might also be led to spread such opinions. On December 24, 1696 the jury found Aikenhead guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged. He appealed and asked the Privy Council to consider his young age and the fact that he was a first time offender. They were generally unimpressed. Two Privy Councilors did plead on his behalf and on January 7, after a second petition, the Privy Council demurred to the Church of Scotland saying if their General Assembly would ask for leniency, they would grant it.
Instead, the religious elders not only upheld the death penalty, but urged a “vigorous execution” in order to make sure this would never happen again. Since his sentence was confirmed, he was walked to the gallows early on this day. He had a statement prepared, but it is uncertain if he was permitted to deliver it. He then had a long walk from the Tolbooth to the gallows and, under heavy guard, went to meet his death. He became the last person to be hanged in Britain for this particular offense. His death came 85 years after the death of Edward Wightman who was the last man to be burned at the stake for heresy in England.
While Aikenhead was the last to be hanged for the offense of blasphemy, the crime was still on the books and still prosecuted. The last man to be sent to prison for the crime was John William Gott who was not only jailed, but jailed repeatedly for blasphemy between 1911 and 1922. He first came to the attention of the Home Office in 1902 when he published an unsanctioned book. By the time his Rib Ticklers or Questions for Parsons was published in 1911, it was deemed he needed a bigger lesson and he was imprisoned for four months. He became increasingly vocal after his wife died and his last arrest came in 1921 and he was released from prison for the last time in early 1922. His ill health was so compromised, he died later in that year. The law was finally removed from the books in 2008 by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of that year.
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’s final message
To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy. – Pope Francis
One man’s blasphemy doesn’t override other people’s free-speech rights, their freedom to publish, freedom of thought. – Dan Savage
Is it not a species of blasphemy to call the New Testament revealed religion, when we see in it such contradictions and absurdities. – Thomas Paine