Jefferson, Galileo, and the myth of the flat-earthers

June 9, 2005 at 11:28 pm 7 comments

I was sitting outside this morning, minding my own business and distractedly reading the assignment for class today, when I stumbled across this interesting find:

“Galileo,” claimed Thomas Jefferson, in an excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia, “was sent to the Inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error.”


I think Jefferson must have been a little foggy on the details of this story, because Galileo’s trial didn’t have anything to do with the shape of the earth. Rather, he was sent to the Inquisition over his theory (borrowed from Copernicus) that the earth revolves around the sun (as opposed to things being the other way around).

However, I’ve made worse mistakes, so I don’t mind granting Jefferson a little grace for an error.

I was a little surprised, though, that there wasn’t any note in the text about this being a mistake. Sheesh! If I didn’t have outside knowledge about Galileo’s story that would make me question this, I would have accepted Jefferson’s version of history as true!

The thing that was more interesting, though, was what happened later in the day, during class.

I told one of my classmates about Jefferson’s remark, to which he responded that even if it was a mistake on Jefferson’s part, people were still questioning whether or not the earth was flat up until Columbus’s voyage in 1492.

I couldn’t remember exactly how long people have known the earth was spherical, but I was nearly positive I had read that that date was wrong.

Roy was skeptical, though, and was still pretty sure that the shift in views came at about the beginning of the 16th century.

So I told him I’d look it up and tell him what I found, and I went home this afternoon to do a bit of research.

Well, what do you know…

The idea that that people of the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth didn’t originate until the 1830s. This idea was introduced by a couple people contemporaneously, one of whom was Washington Irving (who created Rip Van Winkle, and who had a reputation for writing historical fiction under the guise of fact).

In reality, the concept of a spherical earth has been around at least since Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, according to Dr. Jeffrey Burton Russell. After the 3rd century BC, almost no educated person believed in a flat earth.

Yet despite this fact, it’s a very common myth that the earth was discovered to be spherical only recently. So how come the myth is so prevalent?

Russell’s answer: The defense of Darwinism. Painting medieval Christians as flat-earthers was handy ammunition against creationists, because it helps to imply that Christianity gets in the way of science.

Interesting little twist there!

I tend to be skeptical of this last conclusion, and will give Darwinists the benefit of the doubt on this matter. However, I thought it was quite a fascinating tag on the question of when the earth became spherical in the minds of its inhabitants.

One last thing, back on Jefferson again. There was another quote from his Notes that I found interesting, in light of my last post:

“The legitimate powers of government,” he said, “extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Hmm…I don’t believe in state sponsored religion. Still, if there is a God, is it less injurious to my neighbor for me to deny that He exists than it is for me to deny, say, that there is a government in Washington to which I must send taxes?


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That’s their thing? Intro to yard work

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anonymous  |  January 8, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Or is it less injurious to just not muck with his belief system?

  • 2. Matthew  |  February 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I find that last Jefferson quote to be interesting, as it depends on how people define “injurious to my neighbor.” That level of ambiguity under-girding the foundations of governmental theory is scary. What happens if one argues that Islam is inherently injurious to society, because it promotes “intolerance” (the same could be said of any religion)? How do we tell whether adultery is injurious enough to be legislated? It certainly hurts enough people.

    Good questions. You were pretty insightful in 2005….you know, only 6 years from our own flat-earth theory: Y2K.

  • 3. Jim Phelps  |  July 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Perhaps you need to look up the history for Constaintine’s advisor Lactantius, who was a flat earth type that said the world was not an Orb. So, the Flat Earth theme existed in the very beginnings for the fella that collected the Bible stories contrary to your research.

    As for the issues of Darwin and Evolution, religion is very omissive of the problems because they fail to include the pre-flood issues of the Sumerican Creator gods that engages in human genetic breeding games, which put a bump in the evolutionary curve for human beings. All of Darwins themes work well for the animals, because the Sumerian Creator gods were not into the animal genetic breeding.

    It is all part of the ancient pre-flood history that survived the flood due to being written on baked clay tablets that were not distroyed by water and floods. This area began the Ziggarats, that became the issues of Numrod’s tower, and then the issues of the Pyramids, and each was a large river supported agriculture system that was developed by the science methods of these Creator gods.

    So, Darwin’s theme works fine when the Genetic breeding done in Ancient Sumeria is included in the critical thinking process for Evolution. The curve was perturbed by this advanced breeding happening in those times. One can also see this happen with the Book of Enoch and following the decendants of Abraham from the City of Ur in ancient Sumeria. The linage goes on down to Enoch, the Noah, the Nimrod, and on down the line for the ones with taller statures, more blonde hair and blue eyes being their genetic markers.

    Due to these serious oversights by the religion themes that omit this pre-flood history it makes the merits for the Evolutionists terming Christian Anti-Evolutionists as having good foundations to be called them metaphorically flat Earth level thinkers, for the very same reason they failed to notice Lactantius, and isues of Isiah speaking in flat earth terms.

    Religion has serious problems with failures of research on these issues and critical thinking processing skills, and a serious denial process of the churches to recognize the pre-flood Semerian history involving genetic breeding for humans. If and when religion gets these factors straight they might begin to overcome being termed flat earth believers.

    • 4. Mary  |  July 31, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      Phelps hasn’t a clue about history. He should read literature as well. No one thought the world was flat. A lunar eclipse proves that and the ancients were masters of astronomy.

  • 5. Mary  |  July 31, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    The earliest of these flat-Earth promoters was the African Lactantius (AD 245-325), a professional rhetorician who converted to Christianity mid-life.
    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 ignored until the Renaissance (at which time some humanists revived his writings as a model of good Latin, and of course, his flat Earth view also was revived).

  • 6. Mary  |  July 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Advanced breeding? Darwin’s theory is 150 years old–evolution does not explain why man is so vastly different philosophically from animals. Religion and/or hristianity wasn’t the problem–humanists and atheists invented myths to create a problem.

  • 7. rick thompson  |  April 19, 2014 at 10:41 am

    What we all call “Darwin’s theory” had been a work in progress beginning with Aristotle. See “Darwin’s Ghost” (Rebecca Stott) for details. Granted there is a huge gap in the historical records; that “gap” running primarily between the time of the post-Constantine Church and the emergence of Humanism roughly a thousand years later. That GAP represents a time when there existed an acceptable level of ignorance promoted by the folks Jefferson mistakenly thought of as “…the government.” Jefferson’s “wall” was constructed in part to insure such mistakes would not be allowed to so freely continue


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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