Millions of elementary school students have been taught that the first voyage of Columbus was conceived by the intrepid explorer to prove the earth was round. The story goes that the scientists and cartographers of the fifteenth century were still under the illusion that the earth was flat because that’s what the Bible taught. Religion was an impediment to scientific discovery. Columbus stood up to the church’s control over scientific information and insisted that the earth was round contrary to ecclesiastical pronouncements to the contrary. The opposition was swift and fierce, so the mythstorians would have us believe.

In the eleven-volume Our Wonder World, first published in 1914, the editors offered the following undocumented claims: “All the ancient peoples thought the earth was flat, or, if not perfectly flat, a great slightly curving surface,” and “Columbus was trying to convince people that the earth was round.”[1] Even the Encyclopedia Britannica perpetuated the myth of a round-earth solution for Columbus’s voyages as late as 1961: “Before Columbus proved the world was round, people thought the horizon marked its edge. Today we know better.” The people knew better in Columbus’s day. A 1983 textbook for fifth-graders misinformed students by reporting that Columbus “felt he would eventually reach the Indies in the East. Many Europeans still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the earth.”[2] A 1982 text for eighth-graders said that Europeans “believed . . . that a ship could sail out to sea just so far before it fell off the edge of the sea. . . . The people of Europe a thousand years ago knew little about the world.”3

How and why did the flat-earth myth get started? The legend entered the history books when Washington Irving published his three-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Irving, best known for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” used his fiction-writing skills to fabricate a supposed confrontation that Columbus had with churchmen who maintained that the Bible taught that the earth was flat. No such encounter ever took place. Samuel Eliot Morison, a noted Columbus biographer, describes the story by Irving as “misleading and mischievous nonsense, . . . one of the most popular Columbian myths.”[4] In the case of Hollywood’s portrayal of Columbus, the first film released in 1949 “remains the most accurate portrayal of Columbus. Frederic March gives a multi-dimensional, warts and all portrayal that coincides with the historical record that Columbus was obnoxious, cranky, sanctimonious, determined, quick to anger, and an all around pain in [the] neck.”[5] The movie even dismisses the notion that Columbus was going to use the voyage to counter flat-earth advocates.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This line was spoken by newspaperman Maxwell Scott (Carlton Young) in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, starring John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with the return of Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles, as the generic “love interest”), to the small frontier town of Shinbone. Stoddard is an influential and well-liked political figure, but nowhere is he more revered than in Shinbone, the place where his career started. On this sad day, however, Ransom has returned to pay tribute to an old friend, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who has died. Initially, he intends to slip in and out of Shinbone with little fanfare, but, when a newspaper reporter corners him, he decides to reveal the true story about how his life in politics began and why his most famous appellation, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is unearned.[6]

After hearing the true story of who really shot Liberty Valence, the newspaperman tears up his notes and utters the line that since the legend is more exciting than the true history, he’s going with the legend. How many high school students believe the play Inherit the Wind is an accurate portrayal of the 1925 Scopes Trial? Probably most of them. Many Christians will use this as evidence that pop culture is something to be avoided. They’re like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not celebrate birthdays because John the Baptist was martyred in celebration of a birthday. This type of logic brings the following verse to mind: “And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Secularists have learned how to use the media of the day to propagate their ideas.


[1] Howard Benjamin Grose, ed., Our Wonder World, 11 vols. (Chicago: George L. Shuman & Co., [1914] 1918), 1:1, 5. [2] America Past and Present (Scott Foresman, 1983), 98. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991), 3. [3] We the People (Heath, 1982), 28–29. Quoted in Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 3. [4] Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 89. [5] Frank Sanello, Reel v Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003), 35. [6]