Help Sustain the AiG Ministry

Give Today

A Sort-of Book Review of Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea

by on
Share:

I recently read Christine Garwood’s 2007 book, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.1 I remember hearing of this book when it came out, but at the time, I saw little need to read it since a decade earlier I had read Geoffrey Burton Russell’s excellent 1991 book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians.2 Publication of Garwood’s book was about midway between my first article about flat earth (1997) and my second article about flat earth (2016). Why the 19-year gap between my first two articles about flat earth? I wrote the 1997 article to refute the slur that we biblical creationists teach something akin to the earth being flat. Little did I know in 1997 that flat earth was to become a thing in the 21st century. I wrote my second article shortly after I discovered the current flat earth movement early in 2016. I’ve since written 20 articles and blogs about the flat earth movement, as well as a book that came out last year.

To fill in my knowledge about the history of the flat earth movement, I recently ordered Garwood’s book. I’m glad that I did. It is a very well-written and detailed book. Garwood is a historian of science, and she knows her trade well. I already knew quite a bit about leaders of the flat earth movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Samuel Rowbotham, Lady Blount, and Wilbur Glenn Voliva, but Garwood’s book filled in many details. For instance, I knew that Rowbotham was a quick wit, but Garwood included an incident that illustrated his wit perfectly (p. 377). One day Rowbotham was running to catch a train when two masked, armed men accosted him and demanded, “Your money or your life!” Without missing a beat, Rowbotham replied, “Run for your lives! I’ve just burgled that house, and the police are after me!” Rowbotham escaped with both his treasure and his life.

But now I’m thinking that perhaps it was Garwood’s book that may have given some ne’er-do-wells the idea to relaunch flat earthism in the 21st century.

This anecdote is consistent with a possibility that I had already concluded about Rowbotham—he wasn’t serious in his flat-earth crusade. And Garwood considers this a distinct possibility too (pp. 43‒45). With his quick wit, Rowbotham was a gadfly who seemed to delight in turning people in knots by bringing up arguments about the earth being flat that few people could refute. Some people are just like that, and they derive perverse delight from watching others squirm. And if Rowbotham could make a few bucks in the process, so much the better. I suspect that there are people in the 21st century flat-earth movement who are motivated by the same thing. The problem is, like Rowbotham, his 21st-century counterparts have acquired a following of true believers. For some time, I had thought that the current flat-earth movement began when someone stumbled across books written by leaders of the flat-earth movement of more than a century ago. But now I’m thinking that perhaps it was Garwood’s book that may have given some ne’er-do-wells the idea to relaunch flat-earthism in the 21st century.

I made notes as I read Garwood’s book, and I’d like to share some things that stood out to me. In discussing early Rowbotham converts John Hampden and William Carpenter, Garwood noted that “both had a profound contempt for authority and religious and epistemological élites” (p. 74). I’ve seen this in the current flat-earth movement. As an astronomer with a Ph.D. in astronomy and enough course work for a Ph.D. in physics, flat-earthers regularly dismiss my knowledge and expertise as rubbish. Some of these people whose formal education likely ended in high school think that they know far more about what science is and how it ought to be conducted. Flat-earthers demonstrate the same attitude toward learned men who have dedicated their lives to the study of Scripture and/or the original languages of the Bible. Twenty-something people who think that their eyes recently have been opened to the true biblical cosmology believe that they have far more understanding of the Bible than these scholars do. They regularly work Hebrew lexicons to sift out their preferred meanings of Hebrew words, such as raqia. When confronted with what that Hebraists have to say, the naïve flat-earthers simply assert that the Hebraists are wrong about what these words mean. There is only one word for the combination of such colossal ignorance and arrogance: hubris. I have found that many flat-earthers are not part of a local church body. This undoubtedly is because they cannot find a local church that makes flat-earth part of its doctrine (though there are some flat-earth churches). With their anti-authority attitude, it is relatively easy to justify not being part of a local church.

Flat Refusal

Speaking of William Carpenter, on page 105, Garwood described the time that Alfred Russell Wallace (who famously developed natural selection as the mechanism of biological evolution about the time that Charles Darwin did) and Carpenter conducted a joint test on the Bedford level. This was a variation on the famous Bedford level experiments that Rowbotham used so much in his argument that the earth was flat. This experiment consisted of two markers and a telescope, each 13 feet above the water. The telescope and one marker were placed on bridges six miles apart. The other marker was fastened to a pole about halfway between the first marker and the telescope. If the earth were flat, then both markers would appear the same height through the telescope. But if the earth were a globe, then the more distant marker would appear lower than the nearer marker. Wallace looked through the telescope and saw that the more distant marker was lower than the closer marker, consistent with the earth being spherical. But when Carpenter looked through the telescope, he was delighted, for he said that the observation proved that the earth was flat! Garwood wrote that “Wallace watched, thunderstruck: he had never witnessed such blatant refusal to accept scientific evidence as fact.”

Indeed, I’ve encountered this same refusal from flat-earthers today. For instance, in my book (pp. 64–68), I recount a similar thing with Dean Odle, a pastor of a flat-earth church in Opelika, Alabama. Odle had taken his parishioners on a field trip to Mobile Bay, where they photographed distant objects from across the bay. In a sermon at his church placed on YouTube, Odle displayed those photos showing objects at water level, the view of which ought to have been blocked by the earth’s curvature if the earth were a globe. Thus, Odle proclaimed that this was proof that the earth is not a globe but is flat. At the first Flat Earth International Conference in 2017, I spoke to Odle and suggested that temperature inversion was responsible for this and that he ought to redo the experiment when there was no temperature inversion. Odle seemed to dismiss me entirely, so I was surprised when a few months later, he returned to Mobile Bay in late winter to redo the experiment. The next day he preached about flat earth in his church and showed the new photos, and his sermon soon went up on YouTube. Sure enough, right there in the pictures, I could see the hull of a cargo ship was not visible, as was the dock and the bottom of the dock cranes. Clearly, the view of these things was blocked by the earth’s curvature. Like Wallace, I, too, was thunderstruck to hear Odle confidently proclaim that this was evidence that the earth is flat. It’s difficult to have a serious discussion with people who cannot rationally view the world.

The interaction between Wallace and Carpenter was just a small part of the imbroglio involving Wallace and John Hampden. Hampden had offered what was then a handsome sum of 500 British pounds to anyone who could demonstrate the earth’s curvature. It was this wager that had prompted Wallace to do the joint experiment on the Bedford level. But mindful of refraction, Wallace moved the apparatus upward 13 feet to avoid a possible temperature inversion. Garwood devoted chapter four to a detailed account of this affair. Hampden refused to pay Wallace, but a referee awarded the prize anyway. The whole matter ended up in court. In the meantime, Hampden grew very abusive toward Wallace, and several court proceedings resulted in fines, damages, and even several confinements in jail for Hampden. It makes for a fascinating read. I’m just glad that no flat-earther today has gone to such lengths. The affair lasted for several years. In the end, Wallace had to return the 500 pounds, plus expenses. The rationale for the decision was that the deal was a wager. Under British law at the time, a person placing a bet could recover his wager from the stakeholder at any time before the award was made, even after the outcome of the event being betted on. This old law probably was an attempt to discourage betting in the first place.

I’m aware of some current flat-earthers who have made similar offers, and I’ve even heard of one person who attempted to collect and went to small claims court to do so. The case was thrown out on a technicality, but the flat-earth defendant has spun this as a court ruling that the earth is flat. This badly misrepresented outcome and Wallace’s tribulation with Hampden underscores the wisdom of ignoring likely disingenuous offers from flat-earthers.

The Flat Earth Society

If you attempt to raise any arguments that the flat earth society uses, most flat-earthers quickly will tell you to get serious and to use real arguments, not sham arguments from frauds.

In my own research on the history of the flat-earth movement, I hadn’t investigated the leading flat earth figures for the second half of the 20th century. These are usually dismissed as “the flat earth society.” Furthermore, 21st-century flat-earthers generally denounce the flat earth society as a shill, a sellout, or controlled opposition. If you attempt to raise any arguments that the flat earth society uses, most flat-earthers quickly will tell you to get serious and to use real arguments, not sham arguments from frauds (but occasionally I catch flat-earthers using arguments from theflatearthsociety.org). Therefore, why bother looking into what might appear at first to be irrelevant people? As it turns out, the story is far more complex. Nor are late 20th century flat-earthers necessarily the wolves in sheep’s clothing that most 21st century flat-earthers seem to think. In chapters 7–9, Garwood gave a very detailed history of the flat-earth movement of the latter half of the 20th century. I’ll share some insights from those three chapters.

What we call “the flat earth society” was begun by Samuel Shenton in 1956. Based in Dover, England, Shenton founded the International Flat Earth Research Society (you see, there never actually was a “flat earth society”). Shenton apparently went astray as early as the 1920s when flight was still relatively new. He claimed to have designed a flying machine that would simply hover as the earth’s rotation took places to the west eastward, and the craft could land at its destination. He didn’t have a solution for east-bound flights, other than just waiting until the world turned around much further. Shenton sent his plans to various universities and government agencies, expecting to receive all sorts of favorable attention for his idea. When that failed to materialize, Shenton began to suspect that the establishment was hiding something, so he embarked on a journey of discovery. That journey eventually led Shenton to the nearly forgotten books by Rowbotham and other flat-earthers from a few decades earlier. With the founding of his society, Shenton became a persistent advocate for his belief that the earth was flat. His efforts may have remained in obscurity, if not for his good (or bad?) timing. He launched his society a year before the launch of Sputnik and the space age. As the space race heated up in the 1960s, Shenton increasingly became the focus of much media attention. This attention came to a climax with the Apollo 11 in July 1969. Shenton died two years later.

In 1972, the year after Shenton’s death, the torch was passed on to Charles Johnson. An American, Johnson had become a globe skeptic in his youth. Johnson briefly came under the influence of Wilbur Glenn Voliva. For three decades beginning in 1906, Voliva had been the leader of the Christian Catholic Church of Zion, Illinois. Under his leadership, Voliva transformed this church into a flat-earth sect that ran the city of Zion. However, corruption and the Great Depression took its toll on the church, and Voliva eventually was driven away from its leadership. Johnson and Voliva corresponded shortly before Voliva’s death in 1942. Concerns at work kept Johnson occupied for the next two decades.

In the 1960s, Johnson became aware of Shenton’s endeavors via the press coverage during the space race. In 1965, Johnson joined Shenton’s society, and the two corresponded until Shenton’s death in 1971. Johnson gained enough of Shenton’s confidence that Shenton desired that Johnson take over after his death, but things got a little complicated. Many of the Shenton’s papers went to Ellis Hillman, who had been an officer in Shenton’s society. However, Hillman turned out to be a non-flat-earther, and the few presentations that Hillman gave after Shenton’s death were farces. This may be the source of the common flat-earth claim that “the flat earth society” is not for real. However, Shenton’s widow eventually shipped to Johnson what was left of her late husband’s records. In 1972, Johnson incorporated the Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People’s Church, though the latter part of its title usually is left off. In the public’s mind, even the “research” part gets left off the title. Johnson remained president of the society until his death in 2001. Consequently, for those three decades, Johnson was the visible face and mouthpiece of “the flat earth society.”

Johnson’s death would have seemed to have ended “the flat earth society,” and this is where Garwood ended her historical account. However, since the publication of Garwood’s book, Daniel Shenton (no relation to Samuel Shenton) relaunched the Flat Earth Society. In contrast to earlier incarnations, “The Flat Earth Society” is this organization’s name. Unlike previous societies, this one is mostly web based. I suppose this is in response to the realities of the world today. It is not clear to me why so many flat-earthers dismiss this organization as being a shill or fake group. Perusing its website, I find many of the sources that flat-earthers use, so I don’t see any real distinction. But the flat-earth movement today is filled with many rifts, with harsh criticisms and accusations flying back and forth, including denouncements of who is and who is not a shill or sellout. It may just be the fundamental disrespect of authority that is rampant among flat-earthers causing them to dismiss anyone who dares call themselves “the Flat Earth Society.”

Are You Serious?

While the flat-earthers of more than a century ago, Voliva, Johnson, and both Shentons appear to have been serious, there have been some fake flat-earth groups of sorts. I’ve already briefly mentioned Hillman. However, in Chapter Eight, Garwood detailed such a Canadian group that was active in the 1970s. A small clique of Bohemian academics and literary people in New Brunswick were dismayed at how so many people seemed to have blind faith in science, much as they thought people had blind faith in religion a few centuries earlier. To satirize this problem, and have a little fun along the way, in 1970 they formed the Flat Earth Society of Canada. They published articles, conducted interviews, and gave presentations, including at some otherwise serious academic conferences. Most of their audiences seemed to get the point that they were making. However, there were a few, mostly flat-earthers, who didn’t seem to get it and thought this was a serious flat-earth group. Lacking the passion of people who really do believe the earth is flat, this group eventually disappeared as its members moved on to other things. Perhaps it is this group that instills the suspicions of flat-earth societies that so many current flat-earthers have. Or it could be that many members, maybe even most members, of the various flat-earth societies have not been flat-earthers. Some joined as a joke; others had their name, address, and membership fee submitted by friends or students as a joke.

Do flat-earthers and biblical creationists have much in common?

Throughout the book, Garwood mentioned the apparent similarity between flat-earthers and those who believe in a six-day recent creation. Though she doesn’t agree with biblical creationists, Garwood’s treatment is very fair. As a six-day recent creationist, I greatly appreciate her unbiased approach. Since I began writing about the flat-earth movement four years ago, there have been several critics who have responded to some of my articles. They point out what they think is very obvious hypocrisy on my part, or, at the very least, my supposed inability to see that I’m guilty of exactly what I criticize flat-earthers of doing. So, let me take this opportunity to address these accusations.

Do flat-earthers and biblical creationists have much in common? For those flat-earthers who claim to base what they believe on the Bible, there appears to be some overlap. In fact, many flat-earthers say that creation ministries such as Answers in Genesis were very helpful in their development, but since have moved beyond us in believing that the earth is flat. Many flat-earthers speak well of Answers in Genesis, only expressing regret that we don’t endorse the notion that the earth is flat. However, some flat-earthers aren’t so kind. Shortly after Henry Morris founded the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Charles Johnson approached Dr. Morris to combine forces to combat not only evolution and millions of years but also the “satanic agenda,” promoting the idea that the earth is a globe. Naturally, ICR declined this union. Consequently, Johnson became a critic of ICR and biblical creationists for not upholding what he thought was the whole truth of the Bible against the assault of science. Some current flat-earthers share this assessment of creation organizations such as Answers in Genesis.

Keep in mind that not all flat-earthers today profess to base their beliefs upon the Bible. But those who do claim that the Bible clearly teaches the earth is flat. You’d think that if that were the case, then somewhere in the Bible there would be at least one verse that says something like, “The earth is flat,” but no such passage exists. Instead, self-professed biblical flat-earthers must build their case upon questionable interpretations of several passages, at best drawing an inference. And this notion that the Bible teaches the earth is flat is of recent origin. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, until the 19th century, almost no one in the history of the church taught that the earth was flat. But don’t take my word for it. The historian Garwood made this very clear in the first chapter of her book. Three decades ago, the medieval scholar Geoffrey Burton Russell made the same point in his book. This false history began entirely in the 19th century. And it wasn’t just the likes of Rowbotham. Some skeptics began to level this false accusation against Scripture, as both Garwood and Russell document. The motivation of the 19th- century skeptics in promoting this lie appears to have been to intimidate the church into accepting Darwinism. The message seemed to be that “the church got the shape of the earth wrong, and it caused embarrassment, so the church had a chance to redeem itself by getting in on the ground floor of Darwinism.”

The Church, Evolution, and Flat Earth

Speaking of evolution, and its attendant belief that the world is millions of years old, consider the church’s historical position. Throughout its history, the church taught six-day recent creation. It was less than three centuries ago that people began to believe otherwise, and the church began to capitulate on this. Hence, six-day recent creationists teach what the church believed throughout most of its existence. However, it is the flat-earthers who want to import new teaching. That is a distinct difference between flat-earthers and biblical creationists.

But there is another major difference. We distinguish between observational science and historical science. Observational science is the study of how the world now exists. Historical science attempts to study what has gone on in the past but isn’t going on anymore. The standards of evidence are very different in these two approaches. The earth’s shape exists in the present. We can devise and conduct tests to determine whether the earth is a globe, or if it is flat, or if it is some other shape. But we can’t carry out such tests on past processes. At best, one can conjecture about the past and arrange evidence that one could interpret considering that conjecture, but that hardly proves the conjecture. For instance, there generally are sequences of fossils in the geological column. Evolutionists have interpreted those sequences in terms evolutionary ideas. However, that doesn’t prove that any organism “evolved” into another organism (nor does it disprove such evolution). Most critics of recent creationists fail to recognize this fundamental difference between observational science and historical science. Hence, it is difficult for them to see any difference between those who believe in biblical creation and those who believe the earth is flat.

For critics of biblical creationists, let me say that again: we don’t believe that everything in the Bible is literally true.

There is another large difference between flat-earthers and creationists who don’t think the earth is flat: we don’t believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. For critics of biblical creationists, let me say that again: we don’t believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. I’m sure that our critics will be stunned to read this, but it’s their own fault because they have been too busy criticizing us to read or listen to what we say. We biblical creationists recognize that there are different genres in the Bible. The poetic and prophetic passages are replete with nonliteral usages. But before our critics go running off with what they think might be some great admission or blunder on my part, be aware that these nonliteral literary devices are largely absent from the historical narratives found in Scripture. And it isn’t that difficult to distinguish between the different genres in the Bible. But both flat-earthers and Bible skeptics can’t seem to (or don’t want to) grasp this. Flat-earthers base most of their supposed biblical case upon misunderstanding of a few passages in the prophetic and poetic books of the Bible. Our critics base much of their criticism upon a false characterization of what we believe (and perhaps intentionally so).

I believe that the first incarnation of flat-earthism began in the 19th century partly as an effort to discredit the Bible and Christians. The rise of Darwinism at the time certainly played a role in this. I also believe that the 21st-century rebirth of flat-earthism is an attempt by some within the movement to undermine creation ministries such as Answers in Genesis. Proclaiming the truth of biblical creation is my calling. Thus, I view the flat-earth movement as a direct threat to what I do, and I continue to battle this either misguided or malicious movement.

Footnotes

  1. Christine Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007).
  2. Geoffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, (New York: Praeger, 1991).

Danny Faulkner Blog Updates

Email me with new blog posts by Danny Faulkner:

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390