A Common Historical Myth – Perpetrated Since 1830 In A School Near You

The history of culture and the influence of popular myths

There’s been a myth and hoax perpetrated in our public school systems for over a hundred years. This hoax is widely acknowledged by historical scholars as one of the “hardiest errors in teaching.”

And yet it remains doggedly with us. It infects even modern history books, the so-called “scholarly works” that consist of hundreds of pages of drama, romance, politics, and religion that document the historical foundations of our world. Was it taught to you as well? See if the following story sounds familiar to you:

The hall of the old convent presented a striking spectacle. A simple mariner standing forth in the midst of an imposing array of clerical and collegiate sages; maintaining his theory with natural eloquence, and, as it were, pleading the cause of the new world.

[The objections he faced from the learned body of men] are proofs rather of the imperfect state of science at the time, and of the manner in which knowledge, though rapidly advancing, was still impeded in its progress by monastic bigotry. Thus, at the threshold of discussion, Columbus was assailed with citations from the Bible, and the works of the early fathers of the church, which were thought incompatible with his theory…

To his simplest proposition, the spherical form of the earth, were opposed figurative texts of scripture…such are specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled error and erudition, with which Columbus had to contend, throughout the examination of his theory. [1]

Of course, this is the story of Christopher Columbus, standing nobly before the learned scholars and aristocracy of his day, defending his belief that the earth was not flat from those who did, who alone held the power to grant his request to sail West from Europe in order to find a passage to the East.

The learned aristocracy, of course, because they were Christians, believed he would fall off the face of the world, and they would lose their investment.


This story is popular, but it is also a myth. It was created in 1828 by a great American storyteller, Washington Irving, in his book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

Burton Russell, a history professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote a book in 1991 that dispelled the atrocious falsehoods that this myth is based upon. [2]

The facts are this: after the 3rd century BC, almost no educated person believed that the earth was flat. The Greeks knew of a round earth as far back as the 6th century BC.


Yes, there were a few Christian writers who believed the earth was flat, but they were in the minority, and it certainly was not the dominant view held by Christian societies. Russell writes:

Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few–at least two and at most five–early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.

In his research, he found no evidence from the medieval ages that anyone held the view that the earth was flat. He didn’t even find a hint of the idea in the writings of the 18th century philosophers who were so hostile towards religion and Christianity.

The idea that Christians throughout the middle ages believed the earth was flat does not show up in history until around the 1830s. The idea seems to have arisen independently at the same time from two different writers living in Paris.

The first was Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848), “an academic of strong antireligious prejudices who had studied both geography and patristics and who cleverly drew upon both to misrepresent the church fathers and their medieval successors as believing in a flat earth”.

The second was Washington Irving, as I’ve already discussed above, who “loved to write historical fiction under the guise of history.”


If this myth remains so widely known (and taught) today, then a very important question is raised by Russell:

But now, why did the false accounts of Letronne and Irving become melded and then, as early as the 1860s, begin to be served up in schools and in schoolbooks as the solemn truth?

Russell, being a master historian, also provides us with the answer:

The answer is that the falsehood about the spherical earth became a colorful and unforgettable part of a larger falsehood: the falsehood of the eternal war between science (good) and religion (bad) throughout Western history. This vast web of falsehood was invented and propagated [by influential historians in the 19th and 20th centuries] who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day.

The reason for promoting both the specific lie about the sphericity of the earth and the general lie that religion and science are in natural and eternal conflict in Western society, is to defend Darwinism…The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: “Look how stupid these Christians are.They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?” [Emphasis added.]

It is obvious that this remains a widely-held, very popular belief of secular humanists and other atheists today. Afterall, they say, Christians are always getting in the way of progress, with their antiquated ideas of family and marriage and their sentimental notions of the preciousness of life of unborn babies.

Even through 2006, if one picks up an attractive, appealing book on a topic like a history of European cultural history from Barnes and Noble, they are likely to find this same old tired line used to discredit and minimize the important, fundamental support that Christianity brought to history that led to the development of the Western world and the entrenchment of the idea that progress in history is possible. [3]

As the influence of Christianity in culture has faded, so has the optimism of progress.

You can read Dr. Russell’s summary in full, from which I’ve quoted in this article, by clicking here:


You can pick up his book for cheap from Amazon by clicking here:



[1] Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York: G. & G. & H. Carville, 1829)[Third Edition], pp. 41-43

[2] Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth : Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991)

[3] Peter Rietbergen, Europe: A Culture History (New York: Routledge, 2006)[Second Edition] p.89. After giving the account of the monk Kosmas who, in AD 547, wrote about a flat earth, Rietbergen writes: “From now on, for more than a thousand years, all Europeans bar a small, scholarly elite thought of the earth as a flat world, as a vast expanse of land in an even vaster expanse of water, contained under the vault of heaven. Indeed, like Kosmas himself, the majority of the clergy, too, was convinced that this was the way God had created the world.” While an informative book, like most modern historians, he writes from a humanist point of view: Christianity is not a cause, but rather just an effect, of humanist progress. While giving much credit to Christianity for supporting and holding together European culture, he seems to paint a picture of a fundamental kernel of humanism that has been steadily transmitted and cultivated down through the ages by various religions, such as Christianity. In reality, the decline of the influence of Christianity has given rise to the influence of modern humanism in Western culture which, through its policies of endless central bank inflation and court systems built upon the shifting sands of its relative morality, will bring down the full weight of the heavens upon the house that modern humanism has built. The break-up and bankruptcy of the European Union will be the next chapter that plays out, followed by the same in the remaining welfare-warfare states of the West.


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