The Flat Earth Society (also known as the International Flat Earth Society or the International Flat Earth Research Society) is an organization that seeks to further the belief that the Earth is flat, instead of an oblate spheroid. The modern organization was founded by Englishman Samuel Shenton in 1956, and later led by Charles K. Johnson, who based the organization in his home in Lancaster, California. The formal society was inactive after Johnson’s death in 2001, but was resurrected in 2004 by its new president Daniel Shenton.
Origins—the Zetetic societies
The belief that the Earth was flat was typical of ancient cosmologies until about the 4th century BC, when the Ancient Greek philosophers proposed the idea that the Earth was a sphere, or at least rounded in shape. Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to propose a spherical Earth in 330 BC. By the early Middle Ages, it was widespread knowledge throughout Europe that the Earth was a sphere.
Modern hypotheses supporting a flat Earth originated with English inventor Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1884). Based on his incorrect interpretation of experiments on the Bedford Level, Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet, called “Zetetic Astronomy”, which he later expanded into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, expounding his views. According to Rowbotham’s system, the earth is a flat disc centered at the North Pole and bounded along its southern edge by a wall of ice (Antarctica), with the sun and moon 3000 miles (4800 km) and the “cosmos” 3100 miles (5000 km) above earth. He also published a leaflet entitled “The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures!!” which argued that the “Bible, alongside our senses, supported the idea that the earth was flat and immovable and this essential truth should not be set aside for a system based solely on human conjecture”.
Rowbotham and his followers, like William Carpenter who continued his work, gained attention by engaging in public debates with leading scientists of the day. One such debate, involving the prominent naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, concerned the Bedford Level experiment (and later led to several lawsuits for fraud and libel). Rowbotham created a Zetetic Society in England and New York, shipping over a thousand copies of Zetetic Astronomy. Council members in New York included the US Consul to China and the superintendent of Baltimore public schools. He also edited “The Zetetic and Anti-Theorist: a monthly journal of practical cosmography“.
After Rowbotham’s death, Lady Elizabeth Blount, wife of the explorer Sir Walter de Sodington Blount, established a Universal Zetetic Society, whose objective was “the propagation of knowledge related to Natural Cosmogony [the creation of the world] in confirmation of the Holy Scriptures, based on practical scientific investigation“. The society published a magazine entitled The Earth Not a Globe Review, and remained active well into the early part of the 20th century. A flat Earth journal, Earth: a Monthly Magazine of Sense and Science, was published between 1901–1904, edited by Lady Blount. In 1901, she repeated Rowbotham’s Bedford Level Experiment and photographed the effect, sparking a correspondence in the magazine English Mechanic with several counter-claims. Later it achieved some notoriety by being involved in a scam involving dental practices. After World War I, the movement underwent a slow decline.
Flat Earth Society
In 1956, Samuel Shenton, a signwriter by trade, created the International Flat Earth Society as a successor to the Universal Zetetic Society and ran it as “organizing secretary” from his home in Dover, in Britain. Due to Shenton’s interest in alternative science and technology, the emphasis on religious arguments was less than in the predecessor society.
This was just before the launch of the first artificial satellite and when satellite images taken from outer space showed the Earth as a sphere rather than flat, the society was undaunted; Shenton remarked: “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”
However it was not until the advent of manned spaceflight that Shenton managed to attract wide publicity, being featured in the New York Times in January and June 1964, when the epithet “flat-earther” was also slung across the floor of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom in both directions.
The society also took the position that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax, staged by Hollywood and based on a script by Arthur C. Clarke, a position also held by others not connected to the Flat Earth Society. On hearing this, Clarke sent a facetious letter to NASA’s chief administrator:
“Dear Sir, on checking my records, I see that I have never received payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch”.
In 1969, Shenton persuaded Ellis Hillman, a Polytechnic lecturer, to become president of the Flat Earth Society, but there is little evidence of any activity on his part until after Shenton’s death, when he added most of Shenton’s library to the archives of the Science Fiction Foundation which he helped to establish.
Shenton died in 1971 and Charles K. Johnson, inheriting part of Shenton’s library from Shenton’s wife, established and became the president of the International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People’s Church in California. Under his leadership, over the next three decades, the Flat Earth Society grew in size from a few members to about 3,000. Johnson distributed newsletters, flyers, maps, and other promotional materials to anyone who asked for them, and managed all membership applications together with his wife, Marjory, who was also a flat-earther. The most famous of these newsletters was Flat Earth News, which was a quarterly four page tabloid. Johnson paid for this through annual dues of members, which ranged from $6 to $10 over the course of his leadership.
Some headlines from Flat Earth News during the ’70s and early ’80s:
- “Whole World Deceived… Except the Very Elect” (Dec. 1977)
- “Australia Not Down Under” (May 1978)
- “Sun Is a Light 32 Miles Across” (Dec. 1978)
- “The Earth Has No Motion” (Jun. 1979)
- “Nikita Krushchev Father of NASA” (Mar. 1980)
- “Galileo Was a Liar” (Dec. 1980)
- “Science Insults Your Intelligence” (Sep. 1980)
- “World IS Flat, and That’s That” (Sep. 1980)
- “The Earth Is Not a Ball; Gravity Does Not Exist” (Mar. 1981)
The most recent world model propagated by the Flat Earth Society holds that humans live on a disc, with the North Pole at its center and a 150-foot (45 m) high wall of ice at the outer edge. The resulting map resembles the symbol of the United Nations, which Johnson used as evidence for his position. In this model, the sun and moon are each a mere 32 miles (52 km) in diameter.
A newsletter from the society gives some insight into Johnson’s thinking:
Aim: To carefully observe, think freely, rediscover forgotten fact and oppose theoretical dogmatic assumptions. To help establish the United States…of the world on this flat earth. Replace the science religion…with SANITY.
The International Flat Earth Society is the oldest continuous Society existing on the world today. It began with the Creation of the Creation. First the water…the face of the deep…without form or limits…just Water. Then the Land sitting in and on the Water, the Water then as now being flat and level, as is the very Nature of Water. There are, of course, mountains and valleys on the Land but since most of the World is Water, we say, “The World is Flat”. Historical accounts and spoken history tell us the Land part may have been square, all in one mass at one time, then as now, the magnetic north being the Center. Vast cataclysmic events and shaking no doubt broke the land apart, divided the Land to be our present continents or islands as they exist today. One thing we know for sure about this world…the known inhabited world is Flat, Level, a Plain World.
We maintain that what is called ‘Science’ today and ‘scientists’ consist of the same old gang of witch doctors, sorcerers, tellers of tales, the ‘Priest-Entertainers’ for the common people. ‘Science’ consists of a weird, way-out occult concoction of gibberish theory-theology…unrelated to the real world of facts, technology and inventions, tall buildings and fast cars, airplanes and other Real and Good things in life; technology is not in any way related to the web of idiotic scientific theory. ALL inventors have been anti-science. The Wright brothers said: “Science theory held us up for years. When we threw out all science, started from experiment and experience, then we invented the airplane.” By the way, airplanes all fly level on this Plane earth.
The Flat Earth Society recruited members by attacking the United States government and all of its agencies, particularly NASA. Much of the society’s literature in its early days focused on interpreting the Bible literally to mean that the Earth is flat, although they did attempt to offer scientific explanations and evidence.
The group rose to about 2,000 members during its peak under Charles K. Johnson. The organization faced overwhelming scientific evidence and public opinion that maintained that the Earth is a sphere. The term “flat-earther” became commonly used to refer to an individual who stubbornly adheres to discredited or outmoded ideas.
The society began to decline in the 1990s, and was further affected by a fire at the house of Charles K. Johnson which destroyed all of the records and contacts of members of the Flat Earth Society. Johnson’s wife, who helped manage the database, died shortly thereafter. Charles K. Johnson himself died on March 19, 2001.
Flat Earth Society of Canada
The Flat Earth Society of Canada was set up by Leo Ferrari (1927–2010), a philosophy professor at the St Thomas University in 1970, together with Raymond Fraser and Alden Nowlan and was active till about 1984. Their aims were quite different from other flat earth societies. They claimed a prevailing problem of the new technological age was the willingness of people to accept theories “on blind faith and to reject the evidence of their own senses.”‘
They published a newsletter, The Official Chronicle and promoted their ideas more widely through television and press. Its primary aims were “to combat the fallacious deification of the circle,” “to restore man’s confidence in the validity of his own perceptions”, and “to spearhead man’s escape from his metaphysical and geometrical prison.”
Flat Earth Society today
In 2004, Daniel Shenton resurrected the Flat Earth Society, basing it around a web-based discussion forum which continues to operate and grow in size. This eventually led to the official relaunch of the society in October 2009, and the creation of a new website, featuring the largest public collection of Flat Earth literature in the world and a user-edited encyclopaedia. Moreover, the society began accepting new members for the first time since 2001, with musician Thomas Dolby becoming the first member to join the newly reconvened society. As of May 2011, around 265 people have become members. Shenton has also conducted several interviews since the society’s relaunch, including in The Guardian newspaper.
A related forum of the International Alliance of Flat Earth Groups is currently inactive.The Flat Earth Society is also represented on Twitter and Facebook.
Current proponents of the Flat Earth Society do not have a central alternative theory; different members have unique ideas on how the Earth is constructed. Some claim that it is a finite plane of unknown extent accelerating upwards at 9.8 m/s^2, whilst others claim it is an infinite plane. Although Flat Earthers generally regard this as a positive, undogmatic approach, attempts have been made to agree on a ‘core’ theory or set of attributes.
The Flat Earth Society in popular culture
- English musician Thomas Dolby, who has released an album called The Flat Earth used the name Flat Earth Society for his website forums, and has linked to information in regards to the flat earth myth in the past.
- In the film Hopscotch, Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) jokes that he is bequeathing all his money to the Flat Earth Society.
- In the 1980s, talk show host Wally George often sparred with and ridiculed members of the Flat Earth Society on his show Hot Seat. Australian talk show host Don Lane also had Flat Earth Society advocates on his show.
- A tourism commercial for Newfoundland and Labrador states that the Flat Earth Society claimed that Newfoundland and Labrador was one of the four corners of the world.
- California-based punk rock band Bad Religion include a song entitled “Flat Earth Society” on their 1990 album Against the Grain, as well as their compilation album All Ages and their live release 30 Years Live, written by Brett Gurewitz. A prominent feature of the song is the refrain “lie, lie, lie,” indicating a strong denunciation of the society and its theories. The band has produced similar songs criticizing other movements it views as pseudoscientific.
- English band Carter USM make reference to the Flat Earth Society in the song Senile Delinquent on their 1995 album Worry Bomb.
- Klutz Press mention the Flat Earth Society in the book “Mother Nature Goes Nuts!” in a section about the argument on global warming, saying how it is practically impossible to get everyone on earth to agree on one thing.
- In the Stephen King novella The Mist, the main character uses the name Flat Earth Society to describe a group that refuse to accept the presence of monsters in the mist outside.