Kenneth Kemp: The War That Never Was

In his book, “The War that Never Was,” Kenneth Kemp unpacks the historical misconception that science and faith are inherently at odds.


Question: where does this come from?

Who has made that claim?

@TedDavis can you take a swing at that question?

Many, many people have made that mythical claim–and tens of millions of American school children learned it in their social studies text until ca. 2000, when it seems to have become much more scarce in the telling. Both of my daughters were taught that. When I offered (in a conversation with the principal) to do a workshop (gratis) for the teachers about the myth and what’s wrong with it, the offer was ignored.

This is a case where wikipedia is generally reliable: Myth of the flat Earth - Wikipedia

Jeff Russell’s book (cited there) is the definitive debunking, but many others have also pointed this out. Wiki accurately cites the book by Thomas Jefferson as containing a version of this–a ridiculous, wholly wrong claim about Galileo and the church, by one of the most learned Americans of his generation. One of my own favorite examples of propagating this “fake news” is this famous painting in the Smithsonian: Columbus before the Queen | Smithsonian American Art Museum. Note the globe on the floor in front of the queen.


John, I think that he’s saying that it’s part of the myth that there was such a fight. People do commonly hold that there was significant contention over the sphericity of the Earth, but as we know that’s a false reading of history.


I note that very little of this is attributed to the church, Jefferson being the major exception.

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John William Draper’s enormously influential account, published as “non-fiction” but largely fictitious, blamed a group of clergy/scholars in Columbus’ time for using Scripture against him on the shape of the earth. Draper listed a bunch of names of earlier Christian authors who rejected a round earth; some of them belonged on that list, while others didn’t–but, the notion that any of Columbus’ learned contemporaries actually denied a spherical earth is patently false, and simply ridiculous, given that all university astronomy books from the 15th century teach the earth’s spherical shape. And, most university students would have studied introductory astronomy with one of those texts.

I grabbed this brief summary of Draper, quoting him about a round earth, from one of my slides: “Its irreligious tendency was pointed out by the Spanish ecclesiastics, and condemned by the council of Salamanca,” and “its orthodoxy was confuted” from passages in Scripture and the church fathers, despite the fact that there had been no such council and some of the fathers he named never criticized a round Earth. (pp. 160-61)

OK, that makes two.

I occasionally reread for enjoyment Christine Garwood’s “Flat Earth” which recounts tales of the flamboyant personalities such as Parallax, Shenton, and others. The story of the US city that permitted no globists was instructive. The longer review here Garwood book reviews shows what she covers.

Washington Irving’s very popular biography of Columbus, The History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, also perpetuates this myth and weaves “church dignitaries and learned friars” into the story of those allegedly opposing Columbus for holding that the Earth is round. Cf. “Washington Irving’s Columbus and the Flat Earth”.

If we stick with a literal interpretation, OK, that makes two. What I said was, “John William Draper’s enormously influential account,…” thereby alluding to many other such accounts. I’m not going to list them all here. An earlier account of enormous influence was Washington Irving’s semi-historical 4-volume biography of Columbus.

Jefferson, Irving, Draper … 20th century social studies textbooks. These all present the mythical story about Christians endorsing a flat earth against the conclusions of reason. For many other examples, see the book by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth; or, the chapter on this in Michael Newton Keas’ new book, Unbelievable.


“aspects of Irving’s tale were regurgitated through the course of the nineteenth century in the work of several French writers, including Bolenius’s source Alphonse de Lamartine, and the Voltairean academic Antoine-Jean Lertronne. As anticlericalists, they had ideological reasons for using versions of the flat-earth myth to attack the Church for its alleged suppression of scientific knowledge. In terms of medieval flat-earth belief, Letronne’s scholarly article ‘On the Cosmological Opinions of the Church Fathers’, published six years after Irving’s biography, was an especially influential source for the idea that early Christians believed the earth was flat and that such views were commonplace through the ‘Dark Ages’ of Western civilization” (Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.)