Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aikenhead, Thomas

AIKENHEAD, THOMAS (1678?–1696–7), executed for blasphemy, was the son of an apothecary at Edinburgh. He is described as ‘not vicious and extremely studious.’ His religious opinions became unsettled by the perusal of ‘some atheistical writers,’ put into his hands, as he asserted, by a fellow student who afterwards informed against him. He was accused of ridiculing the Scriptures, and of declaring that Ezra had invented the Old Testament, that Moses and Christ were impostors, that the doctrine of the Trinity was self-contradictory, and all theology a ‘rhapsody of ill-contrived nonsense.’ Persistent assertion of such opinions was punishable under one statute with death upon a third conviction. Aikenhead made a full recantation before his trial, in which no counsel was assigned to him. His case was brought, by a strained interpretation, under another statute, which made the ‘cursing God or any persons of the Blessed Trinity’ a capital offence. He was accordingly sentenced to death, and hanged 8 Jan. 1696–7, declaring, in his dying speech, his full acceptance of the christian faith. Whilst he was in prison, one of the witnesses, Mungo Craig, published a ‘Satyr against Atheistical Deism … to which is prefixed an account of Mr. Aikenhead's notions, &c.’ A letter published in the ‘State Trials’ from the King MSS. shows that Locke was shocked by this perversion of justice.

[State Trials, xiii. 917–939; Macaulay's History, iv. 781; Arnot's Celebrated Scotch Trials, p. 326.]

L. S.