|Original Manuscript of Irving's Columbus in Wade's Office|
I was too young, too naive, and too ignorant to question my teacher about her statement. I know now that European Christians during the Middle Ages knew and taught others that the world was a sphere.
Writings from the ancient Jews (1500 B.C.), the Greeks (500 B.C.), the early church fathers (A.D. 200) and even the medieval church (A.D. 1200) all represent the earth as a sphere. Columbus sailed west from Europe in order to discover a shorter route to the East Indies. Columbus sailed west to ultimately get east because he and everybody else knew that the earth was round. The idea that the Church believed the earth was flat and that Columbus' voyage proved them wrong is an outright myth.
However, for the past century, American school children have been taught this myth. Students have been told that the Church tried to prevent Columbus from sailing west to Asia, fearing that he and his sailors would sail off the edge of the earth. American school children have been taught that Columbus persevered and overcame religious opposition.
Americans who grew up in educational systems that taught this myth, have now become our leaders, and they too are perpetrating the myth. When President Obama spoke at Prince George's County Community College in Largo, Maryland on March 15, 2012, he used an illustration similar to my grade school teacher, perpetuating the flat earth myth. President Obama said:
Let me tell you something. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail–[laughter]–they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society [laughter]. They would not have believed that the world was round [applause]. We’ve heard these folks in the past.Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has destroyed the flat earth myth in his definitive work Inventing the Flat Earth. Famous evolutionist Stephen Gould (1941-2002) reviewed Russell's book and said:
There never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness...' Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.The Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote 600 years before Christ that God sits above "the circle of the earth" (Isaiah 40:22). The Greeks, like the Jews, knew the earth was a globe by observing lunar eclipses. They saw the earth's shadow on the moon when the earth came directly between the moon and the sun, and they observed a circular shadow of the earth's outline. This was 2,000 years before Columbus sailed the Atlantic.
Almost a millennium before Columbus sailed, the Christian historian and theologian Bede (A.D. 672 - 735) wrote
We call the earth a globe, not as if the shape of a sphere were expressed in the diversity of plains and mountains, but because, if all things are included in the outline, the earth’s circumference will represent the figure of a perfect globe.Again, everybody in Columbus' day knew the earth was a sphere.
The Flat Earth Myth was created in the 19th century, around the same time the theory of evolution was created by Charles Darwin. Too many Christians have swallowed "hook, line, and sinker" that people of faith in earlier centuries were scientifically ignorant. On the contrary, the greatest scientists of all time were people of faith (think Bede, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, etc.)
Creation Ministries International does a superb job showing how two 19th century "scientists," who were avowed anti-Christian bigots, pushed the Flat Earth Myth to prove Christianity was a religion of ignorant people. John William Draper (1811–1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) wrote polemically against Christianity, including Draper's poorly researched History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and White's anti-Christian tome History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Both Draper and White wished the world to embrace Darwin's theory of evolution, and with that embrace, approach life from a purely secular and humanistic world view, with no thought of a God to whom anyone is accountable.
However, the average American didn't come to believe the Flat Earth Myth because of Draper's and White's writings. Nobody read them. The major culprit for most Americans believing that medieval Christians thought the earth was flat was America's first best-selling author, a man named Washington Irving (1783-1859).
Born in New York shortly after the Revolutionary War, Irving traveled abroad to England in 1815 and would stay in England and Europe for the next 17 years. In 1819, Irving published The Sketch-Book , which included superb short stories like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Instantly, Irving became the first best-selling author from America. Irving's works of fiction had historical roots in New York. In fact, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could rightly called historical fiction. Irving was a superb story teller, but he never trained as an academic historian.
In 1826, Irving moved to Madrid Spain to work for the American Consulate. While in Madrid, Irving worked on A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (online manuscript here). Irving's handwritten manuscript on Columbus was published as a book in 1828. It was in Irving's book on Columbus that the Flat Earth Myth was first propagated. Irving, ever the great story teller, embellished the account of Columbus' standing before the Council of Salamanca. Irving represented Columbus as having to "defend his new theory of a round earth" before church dignitaries, learned friars, and other monastic authorities who held to the religious dogma of a flat earth.
This conflict over a new theory of a round earth never happened. Columbus never received opposition to his belief in a round earth because all learned men of Columbus day, particularly church authorities, believed in a spherical earth.
Remember, Irving was a writer of historical fiction, with emphasis on the word fiction. He would base his works on history, but Irving was a creative story teller. Embellishing historical events with colorful fictional anecdotes would sell more books!
Irving was not malevolent toward Christianity. His mother was a loving, pious Episcopalian, and his father was a stern Presbyterian deacon who taught his boys the catechism. Irving wasn't anti-Christian. He was just a good storyteller. His biography of Columbus, which contained the fictional fight with church elders over a global earth, went through 175 editions - a world-wide bestseller! It was Irving's fiction of the Church opposing Columbus belief in a round earth that began the Flat Earth Myth.
Even the erudite Charles Spurgeon would read Irving's book on Columbus and take Irving's anecdote of Columbus before the church council as historical fact. It probably didn't help that Spurgeon was very anti-Catholic, and Irving's work enabled Spurgeon to solidify his view that the Roman Catholic Church was ignorant of truth. Spurgeon lauded Irving's work on Columbus and wrote this about Columbus before the Council of Salamanca.
Notwithstanding the dense bigotry and stupidity of his audience, a few were convinced of the reasonableness of the new theory, and these converts, doubtless, shielded Columbus from the ecclesiastical censures of the prejudiced. But the greater number doggedly persevered in their old opinions, and the poor navigator, as our readers well know, had to fight an uphill battle for years, and had to conquer many adverse circumstances before he saw the "Land of the Free."Even the best of men can fall for a myth.
In the spring of 1832 Washington Irving came back to America after a seventeen year absence. In October 1832, he traveled to an army outpost on the far reaches of the frontier (Fort Gibson, Indian Territory) and set out on a six-week tour of what is now the great state of Oklahoma. Irving wrote A Tour on the Prairies (published in 1835), the best-selling book about his adventurous prarie travels, and it remains a delightful glimpse into what the land of Oklahoma looked like in the 1830's (bears, elk, buffalo, Indians, rivers, crosstimbers, prairies, etc.).
I have hanging on my wall a portion of Irving's original 1826 manuscript on the life of Columbus (see picture at the top). I've read every book Irving has written, as well as most biographies written about Irving. In terms of his legacy, Irving is America's first best-selling author. In terms of his writing, it is colorful historical fiction.
Washington Irving is the unintentional originator of the Flat Earth Myth.
There are five things we can learn from Irving's Flat Earth Myth, particularly in an age when most people get their "information" from social media.
1. Do not accept everything you read as fact, even if it is presented as historical fact.
2. Every author has bias or an agenda; even those who claim to be neutral science or history writers. Irving's agenda in his work on Columbus was to take the dry, historical record and color it with fictional narrative (like Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow) in order to make Columbus more readable, which ultimately means more book sales and ultimately more profits for the author.
3. Always question for yourself the teaching of those who wish to have authority over you. As Good teachers, whether it be Socrates or Christ, always allow students to ask questions and even criticize the teacher, desiring students to think for themselves.
4. Recognize the tendency for bias in yourself.
5. The Christian faith and science are not incompatible.