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Inventing the Flat Earth

Author: 
Ian Taylor

It's no surprise that the history taught in our schools is a rather dull subject. Virtually all events in history, particularly European history, were motivated by religious causes: Muslims massacred Christians, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, Protestants killed Catholics, and all parties persecuted Jews. In the 1800s schools were run by religious authorities, and children attended the school of their parents' faith. When governments took over education, children of various faiths were all hurled together into the same classroom. To avoid conflict with parents, teachers or students, authorities quietly removed as many references to religious factions as possible. Thus no one could be quite sure who had persecuted whom. Today virtually all reference to any religion has disappeared from textbooks, leaving history as a disjointed set of facts: who, when, where, but seldom why.

Deletion from history is bad enough, but "invented" stories have also been added, and the overall effect, intentional or not, has consistently been to diminish the relevance of Christianity. In recent years more responsible historians have begun to expose these additions as "myths." Central to these myths is the evolutionary notion that humanity has made "progress." Every period of history has its negative and positive aspects. The liberal historians have selected those aspects that produce an illusion of "progress" since the Renaissance period. This has been done by emphasizing the negative aspects of Christianity, such as the Inquisition, adding myths such as the flat earth, and calling the Christian period the "Dark Ages." The positive aspects, such as the Christian origins of schools, hospitals and universities and the support of science, are seldom mentioned. This account of history leaves the impression that only since the Renaissance period has humanity made "progress." While it is true that great technical advances have been made, man's moral probity has actually regressed, not progressed.

One of the most successful books published in America in the past two decades is The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin, former head of the U.S. Library of Congress. He makes the following statement concerning the history of human perception of the geography of the world: "A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia . . . affected the continent from AD 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." Boorstin points out that the Greeks had known  the world was a sphere and had even worked out its circumference reasonably accurately. He calls the time of "scholarly amnesia" the "Great Interruption" and adds that during this dark period the old idea that the world was flat was reintroduced and justified by verses of Scripture. He quotes as the Church authority Cosmas Indicopleustes. Boorstin's notion of history is typical of many, yet the facts have been available for many years and have even found their way into some textbooks.

The African Lactantius (AD 245-325) is usually cited as the earliest "Church Father" responsible for the notion that the earth is flat. He was a professional rhetorician at Sicca and converted to Christianity in midlife. He wrote books to defend his new faith but was still influenced by his old teacher, Arnobius, and his pagan ideas. For example, he advocated the doctrine of annihilation, believed that Jesus and Satan were metaphorical twins, and had difficulty visualizing the antipodes where everything would be "upside down." He rejected all the Greek philosophers and, in doing so, also rejected a spherical earth. His views were considered heresy by the Church Fathers, and his work was totally ignored until the Renaissance, when some humanists revived him as a model of good Latin. Of course, his flat earth view was also revived.

One of the later "Church Fathers" was an Eastern Greek Christian, Cosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote in the sixth century. He claimed that the earth was flat and lay beneath the heavens, which consisted of a rectangular vaulted arch. He, too, rejected the pagan philosophers and a spherical earth, but his work was soundly rejected even in his own day by the actual Church Fathers. Cosmas went into obscurity until 1706, when his work was translated from Greek into Latin; in 1897 it was translated into English. Liberal historians have usually claimed that his view was typical of that of the Church Fathers. And Boorstin simply followed the pattern of others without checking the facts. The truth is that most of the Church Fathers did not address the issue of the shape of the earth. Of those who did, Augustine and Origen, for example, said it was "round," meaning spheroidal; but they doubted that humans lived in the antipodes.

Following these fourth and sixth-century writers nothing more is heard about the flat earth until 1828, when a struggling American writer named Washington Irving published his book on Christopher Columbus. Irving (1783-1859) was born in New York City and spent the first 32 years of his life there. He was a fiction writer, probably best known as the author of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which appeared as part of his Sketch Book in 1820. He left New York for Europe in 1815 and did not return to America until 1832. He spent several years in Paris and three years in Spain. While in Spain Irving was invited to translate a valuable collection of manuscripts relating to the voyage of Columbus. He made good use of his time and in 21 months had cobbled together a fine piece of fiction entitled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It was published in 1828. Irving admitted that he was "apt to indulge in the imagination," and he had done so handsomely. The problem was the reader would have no idea which parts of the account were truth and which were Irving's imagination. The theme of the narrative was the victory of rationalism over ignorance and superstition. The scene was set early in the book at the Council of Salamanca, with Columbus confronting the ecclesiastical authorities. Columbus did have to make a good case for his project in order to get funding. However, the issue was never, as Irving had projected, between a lone believer in a spherical earth and a phalanx of Bible-quoting hardheads convinced that the earth was flat. Columbus had fudged his figures more than just a bit to give the impression that the sailing distance between Europe and Japan was far less than was actually the case. Of course, at the time no one knew that the continent of America stood halfway between. The argument at the Council of Salamanca was over the figures Columbus had presented; it had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. Irving , however, "invented" an entirely different argument, concluding his story with the returning hero confounding the authorities by not having fallen off the edge of the world. This was the account of the Columbus expedition of 1492 as received by the popular press. As a fiction writer, Irving had written it so that it would sell. However, something more scholarly was required for the academic. Six years after Irving had published his work on Columbus, the Parisian scholar Antoine-Jean Letronne produced a work that later scholars could feel comfortable quoting.

Letronne (1787-1848) had studied at the Institute de Paris under Edmé Mentelle shortly after the Revolution in 1789. The Institute taught progressivism and the skeptical teachings of Voltaire, while Mentelle attracted a great deal of attention in 1798 with a book claiming that Jesus Christ was an imposter. Young Letronne had studied Latin, Greek and mathematics and became a scholar in his own right; he eventually obtained the chair of history at the Collége de France. In 1834 he published a 32-page article in the prestigious Revue des Deux Mondes on the Cosmographical Opinions of the Church Fathers. Of course, he had access to the writings of Lactantius and Cosmas Indicopleustes, which had been made available in Latin the previous century. In his article, Letronne made the flat earth of Lactantius the majority view among the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Ambrose and Basil. He claimed that under such an alleged reign of folly, astronomers were "forced" to believe that the earth was flat. All this was patently untrue, yet because he was a reputable scholar, no one checked his sources and the lie was repeated by scholar after scholar for the next two centuries. Between Irving and Letronne, the flat earth myth was cast and eagerly picked up by layman and scholar alike. Subsequent writers copied those before them and so reinforced the myth until it became a "well-known fact."

We now come to John Draper and Andrew White writing in the latter part of the same century, again promoting the flat earth myth. Born in England, John William Draper (1811-1882) was the son of a Methodist preacher, but at an early age he rejected his Methodist background, moved to America and became head of the medical school at New York University. He convinced himself that with the downfall of the Roman Empire, the "affairs of men fell into the hands of ignorant and infuriated ecclesiastics, parasites, eunuchs and slaves." These were the "Dark Ages," and if the priest declared the earth to be flat, then flat it had to be or there was the Inquisition, which would remove all doubt! Draper's diatribe was written when he was 63 and was directed particularly against the Roman Church. Entitled History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, it was published in 1874 and became a best seller. In the United States 50 printings were produced during the next 50 years, and translations were made worldwide. This was a single-volume work for popular consumption; the work for scholars was produced by White in two volumes some 22 years later. Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) was brought up in a high church Episcopalian family in New York; as is often the case, he came to hate the Christianity he knew. In 1865 he founded Cornell University as the first explicitly secular university in the United States and became its first president when he was only 33. He spent an active life as educator, historian and diplomat, with an antipathy toward  the Church.  In 1897 he wrote a two-volume  scholarly work,  History of  the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. As did Draper, White assumed that there had been a continuing battle throughout the Christian era between the defenders of ignorance and the enlightened rationalists. His own bias against Christianity caused him to select his information, part of which was the myth of the flat earth.

While many will have lost their faith through the writings of such men as Irving, Draper and White, it is gratifying to know that the following encyclopedias now present the correct account of the Columbus affair: The New Encyclopedia Britannica (1985), Colliers Encyclopedia (1984), The Encyclopedia Americana (1987) and The World Book for Children (1989). But there is still a long way to go before the average student will know from his modern history textbooks that Christianity has been central to virtually all Western human activity, and thus an understanding of the Christian doctrine and the doctrines that oppose it is necessary for the understanding of history. The doctrine of the flat earth is indeed a myth, invented not by the Church but by those wishing to discredit Christianity.

Footnotes: 

Boorstin, Daniel. 1983. The Discoverers. New York: Random House.

Draper, John W. 1874. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. New York: Appleton.

Irving, Washington. 1829. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. New York: J.J. Harper. The entire presentation of the confrontation between Columbus and the church authorities at Salamanca was a product of Irving's imagination!

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. 1942. Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Boston: Little Brown, 2 vols. In vol. 1 Morrison describes Irving's version of the meeting at Salamanca as "pure moonshine" (p. 88).

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. 1991. Inventing the Flat Earth. New York: Praeger (Greenwood Publishing).

White, Andrew Dickson. 1896. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. 2 vols. Reprint, 1978. Cloucester, MA: Peter Smith.