Before the books from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, sparked the advent of “New Atheism” in the post 9/11 era, only cloistered academics and Scottish historians were accustomed with Thomas Aikenhead. Today, not only is there a Facebook page dedicated to Thomas Aikenhead, entire year crowds of non-believers congregate in Leith, Scotland, to commemorate the festival of his death. So who is he?
The eighteenth age English historian Thomas Macaulay explains that Aikenhead was a twenty-year wizened medical student in Edinburgh in 1696 when he was arrested and charged under the 1695 Scottish Blasphemy Act. During his succeeding trial, prosecution witnesses testified that Aikenhead had described theology as “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense,” the Holy Trinity as “unworthy of refutation,” and the Doyenne Testament a collection of “fables.”
Contrary to his later reputation, the official indictment did not plaintiff him of being an “atheist,” but concerning believing that mankind, nature, and God are “one,” and that people are scanty only by their “imaginations.”
“It is a principle inbred connective co-natural to each man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it while for hid treasure . . . well I proceeded until the additional I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired.” Thomas Aikenhead, Tuesday, January 8, 1697 – the day he died.
No record exists regarding his defense.
On Christmas Eve, 1696, the Scottish High Court conspicuous Thomas Aikenhead guilty of blasphemy against “God, Jesus Christ, the Sanctification Scriptures, and all revealed religion.” The Scottish Blasphemy Act adopted the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ principle; first offence, imprisonment and sackcloth; second offence, imprisonment, sackcloth, and a fine; tertian offence, death. Aikenhead was a first stint offender, but the Sharp Court sentenced him to death all the same.
Following appeals against the sentence by Aikenhead’s supporters, the Privy Council referred to the Church of Scotland’s Everyday Assembly, which was meeting in Edinburgh at the time. In response, the commissioners of the General Assembly demanded a “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land.” So, in the afternoon about Tuesday, January 8, 1697, Aikenhead was taken from his cell at the infamous Tolbooth detention adjacent to St.Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, and escorted by armed guards to the public gallows, where he was duly hanged.
Such was the public outrage that disagree one was ever executed for blasphemy in Britain again.
Why were the most powerful men in the land so pandemonium bent on permanently silencing Thomas Aikenhead? He was not accused of animalcule in league beside Satan, nor of being haunted by demons – the usual charges in religiously-inspired persecution – presumably because popular support for this action was neither here nor there.
In trying to make sense concerning this affair, most historians fall back on the cliché that Aikenhead was simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time – a lone willing thinker facing a tyrannical magnifico of dinosaur zealots. But is there not more to it than that? Why was this fact young man singled out? What accounts for the merciless speed besides ferocity with which he was dispatched? This was, after all, the Age of Reason.
By the 1690s, variant philosophers had already published critical assessments of the Bible, pointing published contradictions and internal inconsistencies in the Old Testament. It was nothing new. Institution town coffee houses throughout Britain buzzed with students debating the radical suggestions of Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza. Near a century had passed since a unorthodox was burnt at the stake in Britain.
Clearly, in the eyes of the authorities, Thomas Aikenhead’s beliefs had set him apart him from others, and for some reason, that made him uniquely dangerous.Was there different specific deviation that struck a raw nerve accompanying his accusers, and finally sealed his fate?
Among the list of indictments against Aikenhead was a charge that he reportedly preferred Mohammed over Jesus, undoubtedly a risky attitude, but however unlikely to ever become a fashionable one. Far plus alarming was his description about the New Evidence as “the record of an Imposter Christ,” a bill that is without precedent in the archives of blasphemy cases.
Plainly, Thomas Aikenhead had little sympathy with Judaism, but the connotations like “Imposter Christ” consume outside the traditional Jewish stance that the Christian Jesus is a “false Messiah.” The notion of an “imposter” Christ can be taken to imply the journey of a contemporaneous “genuine” Christ, whose identity was superficially stolen or at trivial appropriated concerning a pretender, or else a “genuine” Christ whose identity was switched to another at some point by a conspiratorial third party – or possibly a combination of both.
Should any of these circumstances be historical fact, then the genuine Christ stays an unknown, his history is not recorded in the Gospel dramas, and his teachings are not disseminated by the Christian church – scenarios that collectively open the largest can of worms imaginable.
Preventing this train of thought from developing any further necessitated the killing of Thomas Aikenhead.
In his own words, Thomas Aikenhead had “an insatiable inclination to the truth,” which he sought for “as for hid treasure.” But where did he look?
Biblical criticism was not yet a scholarly discipline in the late seventeenth century. Ut Supra a medical student, Aikenhead would have been conversant in Latin and Greek and was thus able to study the New Testament and the writings regarding early Dispensation Fathers in their original language. The library at the College of Edinburgh would need carried the books of the first century Jewish historian Josephus, the Latin furthermore Greek classics, and more recent works on theology, philosophy, moreover law. Ergo how did Thomas Aikenhead reach his blasphemous conclusions?
Interestingly enough, even from these limited sources, constructing a acceptable and sound skeleton that supports his provocative theme is feasible. Evidence from material that was previously unaccessible to Aikenhead at the divert of the eighteenth century only strengthens his position.
This article is an abridgement from the forthcoming book The Final Deception: Triumph of the Imposter Christ by Mark Gibbs