Our In the Freethinker's Footsteps project has been made possible thanks to Publishing Scotland's Go-Digital Fund.
Episode One: Thomas Aikenhead's Last Words
On 8 January, 1697, twenty-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy – hanged at the Gallowlee in Edinburgh. In this episode, Stewart Ennis reads an abridged version of Thomas Aikenhead’s final words.
For those of you who don’t know, Thomas Aikenhead was the last man in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. In his letter he describes his desire from a young age to find truth in religion, but alas he lacks certainty about most things in life, including his faith. Aikenhead was twenty years old when he wrote the words that follow, and was hanged shortly thereafter, on January 8, 1697.
You can hear Stewart Ennis reading the letter that preceded Aikenhead's final words, in our audio clip titled "Last Words of a Dying Person”.
For an exploration of 17th C Edinburgh and the perfect storm that led to Thomas Aikenhead’s unusual death sentence, listen to Episode Two of our podcast.
The Freethinker's Footsteps podcast is a literary podcast series. In five episodes it engages with academics and artists to explore the religious, political and gender controversies of 17th C Scotland. It's inspired by Heather Richardson's historical novel Doubting Thomas, based on the strange and sad true story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man to be executed for blasphemy in Britain.
+ Read the transcript
The following is a transcript of the podcast, which is an abridged version of Thomas Aikenhead's final words. You can find his final words in full at the end of his trial transcript here (search "Aikenhead" and choose 917):
Christian People; […] it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure, which indeed had its effect upon me, and my reason therin so mastered me, that I was forced of necessity to reject the authoritys and testimonys, both of my parents and others, instilled into me. So that I went further, and examined the point more reasonably, that I might build my faith upon uncontrovertable grounds and so I proceeded untill that the more I thought theron, the further I was from finding the verity I desired; so that after much ponderings I found my education altogether wrong, […] And this I profess and declare, was the only cause, that made me assert the things that I asserted, and deny the things that I denyed.
And tho’ for the most part […] scepticks are stained, and charged with some great and numerous villanys, and immoralitys, […] it was out of pure love to truth, and my own happiness [that I acted.] And this I proposed to myself, when I was very young, as I remembered, about ten years of age, I have been ever, according to my capacity, searching good and sufficient grounds whereon I might safely build my faith, […]
I have puzled and vexed myself […], and all that I could learn therfrom is, that I cannot have such certainty, either in natural or supernatural things as I would have. And so I desire all men, espechially ingenious young men, to beware and take notice of these things upon which I have splitt. I declare my abborrence and detest of any of my failings or offences […] and its my ernest and only desire and prayer to God for his mercies sake in the name of Jesus Christ, […] to forgive me my offences and trespasses. As also, I from my very heart and in grief and sorrow thereof, am perplexed and troubled for the base, wicked, and irreligious expressions which I have uttered, altho’ that I did the same out of a blind zeal to that which I thought truth. And I profess and declare, that tho’ it do not appear much by outward signes and tokens, yet I cannot express how much I detest, abhor and am troubled at the same, […] I hope […] that it will be better for me that God hath afflicted and punished me in this life, and stopt the current of my sins, than that he had suffered me to go on headlong in my own evil ways, into the miserys out of which I should never have recovered. […]
And I cannot, without doing myself a manifest injury, but vindicat my innocence from those abominable aspersions in a printed satyr of Mr. Mungo Craig’s, who was an evidence against me, whom I have to reckon with God and his own conscience, if he was not as deeply concerned in those hellish notions, (for which I am sentenced) as ever I was, however I bless the Lord, I forgive him and all men, and wishes the Lord may forgive him likewise.
To conclude, as the Lord in his providence hath been pleased in this examplary manner to punish my great sins, so it is my earnest desire to him, that my blood may give a stop to that rageing spirit of atheism which hath taken such footing in Brittain, both in practice and profession. And of his infinite mercy recover those who are deluded with these pernicious principles. And for that end that his everlasting gospell may flourish in these lands, while sun and moon endureth. And now, O Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in they hands I recommned my spirit, beging and hopeing for pardon to all my sins, and to be receaved to they eternal glory, […] Amen.