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Did the Church Teach the Earth was Flat?

Flat Earth

When I was young I was taught in school that Christians believed the Earth was flat. In this view, it was not until Christopher Columbus’ historic journey to the “New World” that the Church became forced to accept this as fact and do away with its false belief. The idea that Christians believed in a flat Earth has been taught in school textbooksshort films, and is believed by many even today.

This notion of history stuck with me through my years as an atheist, during which I'd often refer to Christians as “Flat-Earthers.” I threw the term around in online discussion forums, and ironically some non-Christians have since used it in reference to me.

The whole question of whether the Church taught a flat-earth flared up again recently when I spotted a popular Internet meme (pictured above). It's been shared thousands of times on Facebook, and its quote supposedly derives from the famous Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan:

"The Church says the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church."

Of course, the quote often appears without any citation to its source. And for good reason: There isn't any.

The quote can be traced back to an essay titled Individuality by the famous American political leader and defender of agnosticism, Robert G. Ingersoll. There he writes:

"It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions—some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said,"The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church." On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success."

Ingersoll is not the only famous American political leader to appeal to this bogus belief. Speaking to a crowd in Washington in 2012, President Barack Obama charged Republicans with dismissing alternative energy sources by comparing them to those who thought Columbus should not set sail:

"Here’s the sad thing. Lately we’ve heard a lot of professional politicians—a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office, who shall go unnamed—they’ve been talking down new sources of energy. They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas guzzlers. They think that’s good for our future.
We’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail—they must have been founding members of the Flat-Earth Society. They would not have believed that the world was round."

In all fairness to President Obama, conservative television personality Glen Beck repeated the same historical blunder on his show just a year earlier. Beck managed to one-up the President in the myth department by inserting Galileo into the story.

The idea that Columbus sailed to the “New World” against the wisdom of his day is a complete myth, if a very persistent one. Greek astronomers were aware almost 300 years before the time of Christ that the Earth was round. What they were unsure of was the circumference of the planet.

There are only a handful of early Christian writers (mostly from the areas near Syria) that historians can point to as examples as those believing in a flat earth, but certainly this belief was never a test of Christian orthodoxy, and definitely not a doctrine of the Church at large. It was simply the opinion of a small minority—medieval and later Christians did not believe or teach this.

So then where did this myth actually come from? The earliest source I've been able to pinpoint is Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) in his four-volume series titled A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. This work is a mixture of fact and fiction. There is a scene depicted in the book where shadowy Catholic clergymen warn Columbus that he might sail off the end of the Earth. This, of course, is not supported by any real historical data, but it nevertheless provides good fodder for Internet memes.
Originally posted at Catholic Answers. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Alligator Sunglasses)

Jon Sorensen

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Jon Sorensen is the Director of Marketing for Catholic Answers, the largest lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization in the United States. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-length films. Follow Jon through his website, JonSorenson.net.

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