8 January: On this day in history
What events happened on 8 January in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
8 January 1697: Britain’s last execution for blasphemy takes place
A free-thinking student is sent to the gallows
In January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead was about 20 years old. For much of his life he had been an orphan – that he made it to Edinburgh University to study medicine, therefore, was quite an achievement. Alas, there this bright, idealistic young man read the books that were, if only indirectly, to kill him.
In the mid-1690s, Edinburgh’s library had one of the finest collections in the country, including provocative, supposedly ‘atheistical’ works by philosophers such as Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza. Thomas plunged in with gusto. But he made the mistake of telling his friends what he was reading. This was no time to be a free thinker: the Scottish authorities had recently ordered a crackdown on “atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious” literature. Thomas’s friends talked, and in the autumn of 1696 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy.
According to the indictment, based on the testimony of his so-called friends, Thomas had persistently “ridiculed the holy scriptures”, claiming that Christian 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”. Christ, he said, was an “imposter”. Moses (or Mohammed, said a different witness) had been “the better artist and the better politician”. In any case, he “preferred Mohammed to Christ”, and looked forward to life in hell, which was bound to be warmer than heaven.
On Christmas Eve, young Thomas was sentenced to death. Only the strictest punishment, insisted the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, would stamp out “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”. On the morning of 8 January, he made the long walk to the gallows. In a last letter, he insisted that it was only natural to “have an insatiable inclination to the truth”. He was the last person ever executed for blasphemy in Britain.