Thomas Aikenhead, freethinker, is a little-known historical figure whose claim to fame is being capitally sarcastic.
He was an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh at the end of the 17th century, and had just had his mind awoken to some of the ideas of the Enlightenment. He shared his thoughts with others, and for thus speaking his mind met a gruesome end.
While he doesn't have the profile of some other well-known heretics, his wit, his utter fearlessness and his most excellent 17th-century spelling make him instantly likable. Even if you don't agree with his philosophy, you have to admire his pluckiness.
Aikenhead had indeed a rather scornful attitude towards Christianity, whose dogmas permeated almost every stratum of the society in which he lived. Too far ahead of his time as a freethinker, Aikenhead was not shy about airing his views.
According to a contemporary, he damned theology as "worse than the fictiones of the poets, for they had some connexione, but the scriptures had none." This was hot stuff for the day, and word soon got around.
For his recklessness in making his opinions known Aikenhead was brought before the Scottish Privy Council in November 1696 and indicted for blasphemy. It was
alleged that he "scoffed at, and endeavoured to ridicule the holy scriptures,"
claiming them to be "so stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions,
that [he] admired the stupidity of the world in being soe long deluded by them." He was said to have described the Old Testament as
Ezra's fables, by a profane allusione to Esop's fables, and saying
that Ezra was the inventer thereof, and that being a cunning man he
drew a number of Babylonian slaves to follow him, for whom he had made
up a feigned genealogie as if they had been descended of kings and princes
in the land of Canaan, and therby imposed upon Cyrus who was a Persion and
stranger, presuading him by the devyce of pretendit prophecy concerning himself.
As for the New Testament, Aikenhead was accused of calling it
the History of the Imposter Christ, and affirming him to have learned
magick in Egypt, and that coming from Egypt into Judea, he picked up a
few ignorant blockish fisher fellows, whom he knew by his skill in
phisognomie, had strong imaginations, and that by the help of exalted
imaginatione he play'd his pranks as you [the accused] blasphemously terme the
working of his miracles.
Of Moses, on the other hand, he said "Moses, if you ever say
there was such a man, to have also learned magick in Egypt, but that
he was both the better arteist and better politician than Jesus."
Reportedly he even added that "man's imaginatione duely exalted by
airt and industry can do any thing, even in the infinite power of God". Truly a radical humanist
view, and perhaps the most blasphemous of the lot.
Other accusations levelled at him included a rejection of the doctrine of the
Trinity, labelling it "not worth any man's refutation"; Christ's God/Man
duality he considered "as great a contradictione as Hircus Cervus," the mythical
goat-stag, or as squaring the circle. His prosecutors further alleged, "as to
the doctrine of redemptione by Jesus, you say it is a proud and presumptuous
devyce, and that the inventars thereof are damned, if after this life ther
be either rewaird or punishment."
Finally, to top it all off, Aikenhead was accused of remarking, on a cold August day, that he had
"wished to be in the place that Ezra calls Hell, to warme yourself there." One can only try to
imagine the reaction of the courtroom to this heinous charge.
Thus in December 1696 he was charged under two Scottish Blasphemy laws.
The trial was somewhat of a sham; the conviction of Aikenhead as blasphemer
was a foregone conclusion.
Several religious authorities
pleaded for mercy, but in order to combat "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land", the Church of Scotland wanted to make an example of him, and he was sentenced to death. A hanging date was set for a few weeks later.
The poor undergraduate recanted,
but to no avail; he was executed on January 8th, 1697.
Some of his last words were: "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."
The hanging was, however, not without controversy. While religious persecution did not end, this was the last execution for blasphemy to take place in Britain.
Thomas Aikenhead, pioneer freethinker, I salute you.
Some further details can be found here.