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Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Thomas Aikenhead Unitarian Martyr 1697

As we enter 2013 Unitarians will be marking the passage of the an Act of Parliament "to relieve persons who impugn the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity from certain penalties", known as the "Trinity Act", "Mr Smith's Act" (after its sponsor William Smith MP). It is hard to comprehend that as recently as 1813 to profess belief in Unitarianism was illegal in Great Britain.

January is a month to remember of sacrifice of Thomas Aikenhead, a young Edinburgh medical student, who allegedly railed against the Holy Trinity and was judicially hanged on 8 January 1679. His was the last execution for blasphemy in Britain. He was charged that for more than twelve months he had blasphemed against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and all revealed religion. He was found guilty and two appeals were rejected by the Privy Council. The Church of Scotland General Assembly refused to intercede for him and called for his execution. This was carried out just outside Edinburgh.

In relation to Scotland,  the 1813 Statute repealed the two pieces of legislation, the first passed under Charles II and the second under William III, that ordained the punishment of Death for blasphemy under which he was convicted.

In 2012 we marked the deaths of Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman in 1662; the last to suffer death by burning for heresy in England. Thomas Aikenhead's death was controversial even at the time when ideas of religious freedom were spreading.

When we comment upon issues of religious freedom in other parts of the world we would do well to remember our own journey as a country and the effects of legal penalties suffered by Unitarians well into the 19th century.

For further information see the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

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