Was E.W. Bullinger a Flat-Earther?

by on
Share:

Flat-earthers take a hyper literal approach to the Bible. Whenever critics of the flat-earth movement point out that many things flat-earthers treat very literally in Scripture ought to be taken in some other manner, flat-earthers often respond that E.W. Bullinger, who wrote what many people think was the definitive book on figures of speech in the Bible (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 1898), was a flat-earther. So, was Bullinger a flat-earther?

Before addressing that question, I ought to explain who Bullinger was. E.W. Bullinger (1837–1913) usually is described as an Anglican theologian. Bullinger was an Anglican priest and held pastoral positions in the Anglican Church from 1861 until 1888. Bullinger sided with low church advocates in the low church/high church debate of the Victorian era, which may explain his departure from active pastoral positions. From age 29 until his death, Bullinger was the clerical secretary of the Trinitarian Bible Society, during which he oversaw several important projects. A prolific writer, Bullinger was the general editor of The Companion Bible and wrote commentaries on much of the Bible. As a dispensationalist, many of Bullinger’s books are popular among dispensationalists today. He also authored a book on Numerology (Number in Scripture, 1894) and the gospel in the stars (Witness of the Stars, 1893) (I have been critical of the latter). Bullinger founded and published the journal Things to Come: A Journal of Biblical Literature, with Special Reference to Prophetic Truth. The Official Organ of Prophetic Conferences between 1894–1915 (the publication ceased shortly after Bullinger’s death).

So, where do flat-earthers get the idea that Bullinger was a flat-earther?

So, where do flat-earthers get the idea that Bullinger was a flat-earther? Perhaps the best source for this claim is a document prepared by Kevin Hobby. Let us go through each point made in this article. It is very important that we look for explicit statements from Bullinger himself affirming that he believed the earth to be flat.

The Case for Bullinger Being a Flat-Earther

Appearances

The first bit of evidence that Hobby offered is newspaper accounts of a presentation that Lady Elizabeth Blount, founder of the Universal Zetetic Society (and heir apparent of Samuel Rowbotham, who unleashed the flat-earth movement in the 19th century) gave a public address on the earth being flat to an audience in London’s Exeter Hall on March 7, 1906. Hobby provided links to six separate newspaper accounts, but they appear to read word for word the same. They include this one excerpt: “The Rev. E. W. Bullinger, D.D., the noted scientist, who has only lately come to believe that he walks on a flat and motionless earth, presided….” Note that the news story incorrectly called Bullinger “the noted scientist.” It’s not clear if that was an error or if it was meant as sarcasm. More importantly, the article opines that Bullinger had “only lately come to believe that he walks on a flat and motionless earth.” What was the basis for that statement? It doesn’t seem to be a direct quote from Bullinger but rather is the conclusion of the article’s author. Of all people, flat-earthers ought to be aware that news reporters don’t accurately report what goes on at flat-earth meetings. If presence at a meeting of flat-earthers constitutes agreement with them, then I must be a flat-earther, because I have attended three Flat Earth International Conferences. Furthermore, if one reads the article, it turns out the Lady Blount had much to say about evolutionary ideas of her day, criticism of which I probably would agree with. From Bullinger’s outspoken statements against evolution, it is clear that he agreed with Lady Blount’s statements about evolution. Is it possible that Bullinger was present to show support for that part of Lady Blount’s message but not necessarily her entire message?

The next bit of proof offered was an editorial comment from one of the newspapers referred to above that mentioned once again that Bullinger chaired the meeting where Lady Blount excoriated Sir Isaac Newton. As such, there is nothing new here. This is followed by links to two newspaper accounts a few years later how Bullinger and Lady Blount were swindled out of a large sum of money in an investment, but that hardly advances the notion that Bullinger was a flat-earther. Apparently, Hobby is convinced that association with Lady Blount implies that Bullinger was in complete agreement with her.

Hobby then turned to an excerpt from Bob Schadenwald’s posthumously published eBook, The Plane Truth: A History of the Flat-Earth Movement (2015):

Bullinger’s first appearance in flat-earth annals was probably in 1873, when one “E.B.” of “the Vicarage” wrote a flat letter published in the June 1873 Zetetic [ref. 7.8]. In 1877, he subscribed for six copies of Carpenter’s Delusion of the Day, but he was still at pains to conceal his flat-earth sympathies (he is one of two subscribers whose names are not listed). In the premier issue of Earth Review, there was the following quote from Bullinger (incorrectly identified as “Rev. W. E. Bullinger, D.D.”): “I AGREE with you in your contention respecting the Earth; for my motto has long been, ‘Let God be true and every man a liar.’”

Sources?

First, let me point out that Schadewald was a Bible skeptic, having served as the President of the National Center for Science Education. I’ve seen flat-earthers quote Schadewald that the Bible is a flat-earth book. This was done in a manner that suggested the flat-earthers didn’t realize Schadewald was a Bible skeptic but rather thought he was a Bible believer. Schadewald hardly is a good source on what the Bible teaches or Bullinger’s beliefs. What should one make of the quote attributed to Bullinger by Schadewald? Did Schadewald correctly quote Bullinger, in context? Since the journal mentioned is very obscure, I can’t check it. Furthermore, even if the quote is accurate, is it put in proper context? For instance, was Bullinger agreeing with Lady Blount’s contention about the earth’s shape, or was he agreeing with her contention about the age and origin of the earth? That is not clear at all. Again, this falls far short of a direct, clear statement by Bullinger that he thought the earth was flat.

But Hobby wasn’t finished with Schadewald. He provided a link for a fuller portion of Schadewald’s text, preceded with this statement: “A larger excerpt can be found at the following link; it mentions E. W. Bullinger eight times as it chronicles his conversion to the flat-earth paradigm.” Except that the text didn’t chronicle Bullinger’s conversion to becoming a flat-earther.

Next, Hobby quoted from the Wikipedia page on the entry “Flat Earth.” But that quote doesn’t shed any new light. Much of the material on that page comes from Christine Garwood’s excellent 2007 book, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea and to a much lesser extent from Schadewald’s work. At any rate, the only mention of Bullinger here is that he was a member of Lady Blount’s Universal Zetetic Society. This is followed by a reproduction of p. 159 of Garwood’s book, which again only mentions Bullinger as a member.

Next, Hobby reproduced a publication of the Universal Zetetic Society in which Bullinger was listed as a member of the Society’s committee (a photograph of a Society leaflet from 1883 showing Bullinger as a committee member is found later in Hobby’s article). This was followed by a link to a scan of The Earth: A Monthly Magazine of Sense and Science from a Scriptural Point of View, the publication of the Universal Zetetic Society. This text details how Lady Blount obtained a photograph replicating the Bedford Level Experiment. Hobby included a letter to Lady Blount (and presumably printed in a later issue of The Earth) in which Bullinger wrote, “What a splendid number of The Earth (No.s 47&48). Very valuable. I should like one of the photos. You have performed a work which is of national, not to say world-wide value.” Hobby did not provide a link to substantiate this letter. That is interesting because he took the trouble to document so much else in his article, so this omission is glaring. If the quote attributed to Bullinger is genuine, does it signal his belief that the earth is flat? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Notice that he praised the photo and asked for a copy. Even I might write such a thing to a modern-day flat-earther who had made an extraordinary claim, so that I could check out the evidence myself. Again, this is no clear indication from this that Bullinger was a flat-earther.

This is followed by a link and reproduction from the July 1894 issue of The Earth Not a Globe Review, the Zetetic Society’s predecessor to The Earth. This portion has discussion of the meaning of Job 26:7. It concludes with this:

Dr. Bullinger sends the following translation: “Stretching out the northern heavens over (al) desolation (tohu); hanging the-earth over (al) not what [i.e. not anything (solid)].” And he adds; “As the heavens are stretched out having nothing (apparently) to support them, so the erets (earth) is hung like them and has nothing solid to support it. That is, air is beneath the one, and water beneath the other.”

Equivocal Statements

Apparently, flat-earthers view Bullinger’s translation of Job 26:7 as support of the zetetic model, but I don’t see that. For instance, Bullinger states here that Job 26:7 indicates the heavens aren’t supported by anything, but in the zetetic model the heavenly dome does rest on the earth beyond the ice wall of Antarctica. There isn’t much in Bullinger’s translation that I would quibble with. Again, there is no explicit statement from Bullinger that he believed the earth is flat.

Next, Hobby stated:

Pages 20–21 of the following facsimile quote Bullinger as stating that he agrees with the the [sic] flat-earth model outlined by the Zetetics. He is also stated to be a supporter of “true cosmogony” (i.e., flat-earth cosmogony) and an acquaintance of flat-earther David Wardlaw Scott in Scott's book.

The facsimile is a scan from The Sea-Earth Globe (with a subtitle far too long to include here). This booklet was published in 1918 (five years after Bullinger’s death) under the pseudonym Zetetes. This is the same pseudonym of the editor of The Earth Not a Globe Review, though it is not clear if the two Zetetes were one in the same person. Under the heading of “Honest Confessions of Eminent Men” was this:

I agree with your contention respecting the earth; for my motto has long been, Let God be true and every man a liar. – Dr. W. E. Bullinger to “Zetetes”

This is identical to what Schadewald quoted, so it must be from the same source. According to Schadewald, that source was the first issue of Earth Review. Assuming that this was The Earth Not a Globe Review, of which Zetetes was the editor, this would be from 1893, published 25 years earlier. I previously discussed the possible context of that quote.

What about Hobby’s statement that Bullinger was “also stated to be a supporter of ‘true cosmogony’ (i.e., flat-earth cosmogony)?” Hobby offered no documentation for that, so he failed to deliver on his claim. I ought to add that Hobby here has confused cosmology and cosmogony. Cosmology is the study of the structure of the universe; cosmogony is the study of the origin and history of the universe. Bullinger believed in six-day recent creation as outlined in Genesis 1, as do I. Since this is what many flat-earthers believe, both Bullinger and I are in much agreement with flat-earthers when it comes to cosmogony. However, I am in complete disagreement with flat-earthers’ cosmology, as I suspect Bullinger was too.

What about Bullinger’s acquaintance with David Wardlaw Scott? Hobby reproduced a portion of p. 196 of Scott’s 1901 book, Terra Firma: The Earth Not a Planet Proved from Scripture, Reason, and Fact where Scott said that he was “happy to have some personal acquaintance” with Bullinger. But what does that prove? That Scott and Bullinger knew one another. I’ve made many friends with flat-earthers, largely through my meeting them face to face, but that hardly constitutes evidence that I am a flat-earther.

Next, Hobby included the entry for Bullinger in Tom McIver’s 1988 book Anti-Evolution: An Annotated Bibliography. Most of Bullinger’s entry concentrated on his book about the gospel in the stars. The only other details mentioned were that Bullinger was an Anglican clergyman, a descendent of the reformer J. H. Bullinger, and that Bullinger served on the committee of the Universal Zetetic Society. This provided no new information.

Next, Hobby offered this quote from Bullinger:

How any reasoning man who believes the elementary theories of evolution, of ASTRONOMY, and geology, can accept the doctrine of the atonement is a marvel. – Dr. E. W. Bullinger, D.D. From Things to Come, Feb., 1904

The source of this quote is from one of the last issues of The Earth (1904). At last, this quote seems to offer evidence that indeed Bullinger may have been a flat-earther. To check this, I secured a copy of this issue of Things to Come (volume 10, issue 8). The name of the article is “Christian Evolution,” in which Bullinger expresses his dismay that so many Christians were rapidly accepting evolutionary ideas. However, the above quote is not from the pen of Bullinger. Rather, Bullinger quoted Robert Blatchford in an editorial in The Clarion, a socialist newspaper that Blatchford founded and published between 1891 and 1934. Here is Blatchford’s comments that Bullinger quoted in their entirety:

The Bible declares that God created the heavens and the earth, and that He created them in six days. It declares that He made the sun and the moon after He had made the earth, and that He made them purposely to serve as lights by day and night. But he who heartily accepts the theory of evolution believes all this to be untrue.

The Bible declares that God created man in the likeness of His own image. But he who ‘heartily accepts’ the theory of evolution believes that is not true.

What kind of a ‘religious belief’ can that be which is helped by the theory of evolution?

Surely the very essence of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the atonement. Owing to ‘the Fall’ mankind came under the curse. God sent His Son on earth to die for man. Only by believing on Him can man be saved.

Now, if the theory of evolution is true, the doctrine of the atonement is not true. We can understand how a man may believe one or the other. We cannot understand how a man can believe both.

First, as to ‘the Fall.’ If there was no Fall, there was no reason for an atonement. How can we square ‘the Fall’ with evolution? When did man fall? Was it before he ceased to be a monkey, or after? Was it when he was a tree-man, or later? Was it in the Stone Age, or the Bronze Age, or the Age of Iron?

There never was any ‘Fall,’ never could be any ‘Fall,’ according to the Evolutionists. Evolution assumes a long, slow rise.

Now, if there never was a Fall, why should there be any atonement?

Christians accepting heartily the theory, of evolution, have to believe that God allowed the sun to form out of the nebula, and the earth to form from the sun. That He allowed man to develop slowly from the speck of protoplasm in the sea. That at some period of man’s gradual evolution from the brute, man sinned and fell, and came under the curse. That some thousands of years later God sent His only Son down upon the earth to save man from Hell.

Is there any sense in such a belief?

Evolution teaches that man, even now, is an imperfect creature, an unfinished work, a building still undergoing alterations, an animal still evolving.

But the doctrines of ‘the Fall’ and atonement assume that he is a finished creature, and responsible to God for his actions.

No. It is impossible to hold the theory of evolution, and the doctrine of the atonement. And if Christ were no more than a good man, as Buddha, and Socrates were good men, then the whole fabric of the Christian religion falls to pieces.

How any reasoning man who believes the elementary theories of evolution, of astronomy, and geology, can accept the doctrine of the atonement is a marvel.

No. If the theory of evolution be true, there was nothing to atone for, and nobody to atone. Man has never sinned against God. In fact, the whole fabric of the Christian faith is a mass of error. There was no creation. There was no fall. There was no atonement. There was no Adam, and no Eve, and no devil, and no hell.

Misunderstanding

I put the sentence in question in boldface. Note that these are not the words of Bullinger, as alleged by Hobby and flat-earthers from more than a century ago that Hobby relied upon. Rather, they are the words of socialist (and probably atheist) Robert Blatchford. Indeed, Bullinger immediately followed this quote of Blatchford with:

These are Mr. Blatchford’s arguments, but he uses them for a totally different purpose. He, assuming so-called science and evolution to be the truth, wishes to show that it is impossible to accept Divine revelation as the truth. We, on the other hand, use his own arguments to show that no one who holds the theory of evolution can be a believer in revelation, and is not worthy of the name of “Christian.”

That is, Bullinger agreed with Blatchford’s concluding statements but reached the opposite conclusion: that evolution is false, and the doctrine of the atonement is true. Notice the context of the sentence falsely attributed to Bullinger. It is discussing evolution. Why are astronomy and geology specifically mentioned and not biology? It is probably because, in the minds of many people then (as well as today), evolution has to do with only biology when evolutionary thinking permeates astronomy and geology as well. That is, if Bullinger had made this statement, he wouldn’t have been condemning the whole of astronomy and geology but the evolutionary ideas of astronomy and geology.

Bullinger may have seen in Lady Blount and her companions steadfast opposition to evolution and hence may have viewed them as allies in combatting the inroads that evolution had made among many Christians

This is a key point, and it may explain why Bullinger had a relationship with Lady Blount and other flat-earthers. Bullinger wrote in this issue of Things to Come and elsewhere about the evils of evolution and his alarm that many Christians in his day were so accepting of evolution without realizing how evolution clearly contradicts biblical doctrines. Bullinger may have seen in Lady Blount and her companions steadfast opposition to evolution and hence may have viewed them as allies in combatting the inroads that evolution had made among many Christians. Bullinger may have thought this was a useful strategy, but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it was foolish.

Hobby concluded with Bullinger’s definition of “science” from his Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (1895) and a quote from his Number in Scripture (1894). In his lexicon, Bullinger correctly defined science (gnosis) as “knowledge,” which indeed is the meaning of the word in 1 Timothy 6:20, the one place that the word appears in the Bible. Unfortunately, Bullinger immediately launched into science as it had become to be understood even in his time as the study of the natural world. Bullinger wrote, “Hence what man calls gnosis is falsely so called, because it is mostly hypothesis, conjecture, (e.g. astronomy and geology).” This echoes the wording of 1 Timothy 6:20, but it is a misapplication, for in context the “science falsely so called” clearly refers to false doctrines. This likely was about Gnosticism with its promise of special knowledge, which quickly infiltrated the early church (Colossians 2:8). This is ironic because I have previously pointed out that the flat-earth movement is a form of Gnosticism.

Why did Bullinger single out astronomy and geology here as examples of false sciences based upon hypothesis and conjecture? Flat-earthers probably would argue it was because that is all astronomy and geology are. However, as I pointed out earlier, Bullinger likely had in mind the evolutionary conjectures often found in astronomy and geology in his day (and as today). The quote from Bullinger’s book on numerology (published just one year prior to his lexicon) similarly criticized much of science as hypothesis, conjecture, and supposition (Hobby references p. 104, but the quotation appears on p. 45). However, there Bullinger singled out geology and medicine (not astronomy) as examples. Bullinger stated that if one reads a book on either subject from fifty years earlier, one will find that they are quite “out of date.” Indeed, that is true of any science. It is noteworthy that on p. 11 of his book on numerology, Bullinger praised chemistry as “…worthy of the name Science. Here are not theories and hypotheses, which deprive other so-called sciences of all title to the name.” Bullinger went on to describe chemistry as it was then (1894) understood, with the periodic law as deduced by John Newlands and Dmitri Mendeleev. The periodic table of the elements as we now know it didn’t yet exist. The electron, which is the foundation of understanding chemistry, wasn’t discovered until three years later, and the Bohr model, which was the first form of our modern understanding of the atom, wasn’t proposed until 1913, the year of Bullinger’s death. Bullinger’s discussion of chemistry is far out of date. So much for Bullinger’s praise of chemistry as a science worthy of the name to the detriment of geology and astronomy.

Conclusion

Bullinger offered no clear statements that indicate he believed the earth is flat. The argument that he was a flat-earther relies solely upon Bullinger’s association with flat-earthers, such as Lady Blount and her Universal Zetetic Society. Did Bullinger believe the earth is flat? It’s impossible to say. Bullinger’s participation in the Universal Zetetic Society could be interpreted that way. But with no explicit statement about the earth’s shape, one ought not to necessarily take Bullinger’s participation in that Society as assent with the primary purpose of the Society. With that standard, one could interpret a person’s attendance at a Flat Earth International Convention (FEIC) as that person believing the earth is flat. But my attendance at three such conventions does not constitute evidence that I am a flat-earther. Nor was I the only non-flat-earther at these meetings. Unlike me, some of the non-flat-earthers at the FEICs have not publicly revealed that they believe the earth is a globe, so one could reach a wrong conclusion about an attendee’s belief.

Bullinger was a prolific writer on many different biblical subjects. One must ask if Bullinger was a flat-earther, then why he never directly said so. Flat-earthers might argue that this is an argument from silence, but isn’t their argument that Bullinger was a flat-earther a sort of argument from silence too (i.e., he participated in the Universal Zetetic Society but never wrote that he believed the earth is a globe, so therefore he must have been a flat-earther). But the usual flat-earther response to this question is that Bullinger feared ridicule if he were to have explicitly expressed belief that the earth is flat. That is a common flat-earther claim – there are many people, such as pastors, pilots, engineers, and even scientists, who believe the earth is flat but are afraid to admit it. But this makes no sense on two fronts. First, Bullinger wasn’t the least bit shy in writing at length about subjects that could get him into trouble. For instance, I consider his books on the gospel in the stars and numerology to be rubbish. And many dispensationalists consider some of Bullinger’s dispensational ideas to be extreme and even whacky. Second, if Bullinger were concerned about his image, then why did he lend his name to the Universal Zetetic Society, allowing his name to be included in its committee (whatever that meant) and presiding over a very public meeting where Lady Blount laid out her ideas for the world to see (with much press coverage)? That makes no sense if Bullinger feared being associated with flat-earth beliefs.

If Bullinger did not believe the earth is flat, then why did he participate in the early flat-earth movement? As I have surmised, it may have been that he was attracted to the Universal Zetetic Society’s strong opposition to evolutionary ideas. Bullinger staunchly opposed evolution in all forms and believed in six-day recent creation. Even other dispensationalists of his time did not share Bullinger’s opposition to evolution and millions of years. For instance, the notes on the first few verses of Genesis 1 in C. I. Scofield’s reference Bible endorse the gap theory, the day-age theory, and even theistic evolution. Many flat-earthers today sort of practice this courtesy in reverse – they respect Answers in Genesis and other creation ministries for their stand against evolutionary ideas and millions of years and consider them allies in that battle. Or it may be that Bullinger simply was curious about the flat-earth movement, much as I am, but for his own reasons never criticized the movement.

But what if Bullinger was a flat-earther? What would that prove? All it would prove is that Bullinger was wrong about something. OK, he was wrong about plenty of other things too. But that is because Bullinger was human, and being wrong about things is a trait common to all humanity. Flat-earthers appear to be claiming that Bullinger was a flat-earther, so if a person likes Bullinger’s work, then that person ought to agree with Bullinger that the earth is flat. That amounts to an argument by appeal to authority, something that flat-earthers frequently accuse others of doing.

Danny Faulkner’s Blog Blog Updates

Email me with new blog posts by Danny Faulkner’s Blog:

Privacy Policy

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

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