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The Flat Earth Society (also known as the International Flat Earth Society or International Flat Earth Research Society) is an organization that furthers the theory the Earth is flat rather than a sphere. The modern organization was founded by Englishman Samuel Shenton in 1956, and later led by Charles K Johnson, who based the organization out of his home in Lancaster, California. After Johnson’s death in 2001, the Flat Earth Society weakened and decentralized, but is currently alive and well at theflatearthsociety.org.
Origins of the Flat Earth movement
The belief that the Earth was flat was almost universal until about the 4th century BC, when the Ancient Greek scientists and philosophers proposed the idea that the Earth was a sphere, or at least rounded in shape. Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to provide evidence of a spherical Earth in 330 BC. By early medieval times, it was widespread knowledge throughout Europe that the Earth was a sphere.
However, throughout history, many intellectuals and individuals continued to support the notion of a flat Earth. Modern hypotheses supporting a flat Earth originated with English inventor Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884). Based on his interpretation of certain biblical passages, Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet, which he later expanded into a 430-page book, Earth Not a Globe, expounding his views. According to Rowbotham's system, which he called "Zetetic Astronomy", 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 the moon 3000 miles (4800 km) and the "cosmos" 3100 miles (5000 km) above earth.
Rowbotham and his followers 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).
After Rowbotham's death, his followers established the Universal Zetetic Society, published a magazine entitled The Earth Not a Globe Review, and remained active well into the early part of the 20th century. After World War I, the movement underwent a slow decline.
In the United States, Rowbotham's ideas were taken up by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Founded by a Scottish faith healer, John Alexander Dowie, in 1895, the church established the theocratic community of Zion, Illinois on the shore of Lake Michigan forty miles (seventy kilometers) north of Chicago. In 1906, Dowie was deposed as leader of the sect by his lieutenant, Wilbur Glenn Voliva. The flat earth doctrine was exclusively taught in community schools. Voliva was a pioneer in religious radio broadcasting and described his views in broadcasts on a 100,000-watt (100 kW) radio station. Voliva died in 1942 and the church declined. A few flat earth supporters persisted in Zion into the 1950s.
Flat Earth Society Origins
In 1956, Samuel Shenton took over the Universal Zetetic Society and founded the Flat Earth Society. The organization took a hit when satellite images taken from outer space showed the Earth as a sphere rather than flat, but they were not fazed. Shenton remarked: "It's easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye".
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 1971, Shenton died and Charles K Johnson became the new president of the Flat Earth Society. Under his leadership, over the next three decades, the group 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 he managed all membership applications together with his wife, Marjory, who was also a flat-earther. The most famous of these newsletters was The Flat Earth News, which was a quarterly four page tabloid. Johnson paid for this tabloid through annual dues of members, which ranged from $6-$10 over the course of his leadership.
United Nations flag
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:
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.
The Flat Earth Society recruited members by polarizing 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 certainly attempt to offer scientific explanations and evidence. Recently, the Flat Earth Society focuses on more scientific means of furthering their organization.
The Flat Earth Society faced a few organizational challenges that inhibited them from having a significant impact on modern society. One such problem is that members do not seem to have any physical meetings or any interaction with other members of the organization other than online discussion forums. This makes it difficult to raise group consciousness when such a huge part of that dynamic is group discussions in person and face to face meetings. Another problem that arises is that it is difficult to find tangible achievements and activities that the Flat Earth Society participates in. Other than discussing their theories online and a few notable articles throughout their existence, the Flat Earth Society has not had any significant events or group gatherings. This inhibits collective empowerment of the group due to the lack of visible and dramatic tactics.
Both of these problems really affect participant retention more than anything. The group rose to about 3,000 members during its peak under Charles K. Johnson. It is questionable though how many of those members actively furthered the Flat Earth Theory, and how many of those members were even supportive of the theory.
Another large challenge facing the Flat Earth Society was public ridicule. The organization faced overwhelming scientific evidence and public opinion that maintained that the Earth was a sphere. The term flat-earther is even commonly used to refer to an individual who stubbornly adheres to discredited or outmoded ideas. At the very least, the Flat Earth Society lacks any substantial political, academic or organizational backing except for a few notable exceptions.
The current Flat Earth Society does not have a central alternative theory; different members have unique ideas on how the Earth is constructed. Some advocate the idea that the Earth is utterly flat, while others advocate a disk construction. The lack of alternative theory further affects the legitimacy of the group and the willingness of individuals to join the Flat Earth Society that may have been skeptics of the spherical theory.
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.
Flat Earth Society Today
Charles K. Johnson died on March 19, 2001, leaving the fate of the Flat Earth Society uncertain. Since Johnson's death, the movement has decentralized and it is unclear how many current members there are. Much of the movement’s activity today takes place online through various websites and forums. It is unclear to what extent these different groups interact with each other, if at all. It is also unclear whether any of these groups were actually linked to the Flat Earth Society under Shenton and Johnson.
Albert A. Bartlett, an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a current proponent of a group that he claims as the New Flat Earth Society. Bartlett uses physics and arithmetic to attempt to disprove the notion of a spherical Earth. A significant motivating factor behind Bartlett’s work is his belief that sustainable growth on Earth is impossible in a spherical Earth since resources are finite. He supports the fact that scientists and intellectuals around the world need to adopt the Flat Earth model to move forward. He states: “We need to identify these people as members of "The New Flat Earth Society" because a flat earth is the only earth that has the potential to allow the human population to grow forever.”
One group that claims to be the Flat Earth Society states on their website that it has existed as an organization since 1547. They provide a mission statement, evidence, and a form that interested individuals can fill out to join. Another group claiming to be the Flat Earth Society offers a discussion forum with topics ranging from Flat Earth discussion to information to a section for angry ranting. As of November 24, 2008, this group had close to 500,000 total posts on their discussion board. This group does not appear to have any relationship with the first aforementioned Flat Earth Society. Fox News reported that the latter discussion board represented the official website, but other smaller websites and blogs exist.
The Flat Earth Society is an example of an organization that has benefited greatly from the technological boom of the 1990s, particularly the Internet. Members can share their ideas without leaving their homes, and enjoy the benefit of possible anonymity while they share their ideas. This allows members to make bolder statements and avoid public ridicule. Without use of the internet to communicate, it is possible that the Flat Earth Society would have dissolved following the death of Charles K. Johnson. In a recent article through the BBC, members expressed that plans are underway to better connect members of the Flat Earth Society around the world.