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How did we get here: Part 3

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

So, where did Christopher Columbus get the idea that he could travel west to go east; that is, leave Europe going west and end up in India? Actually, it was already a very old understanding that the Earth was round when he embarked.

The person who perpetrated the idea that people of Columbus’s time still thought the Earth was flat was none other than Washington Irving, in his fictional work, “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” published in 1828. One might have known that Irving was pulling the reader’s leg after reading “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

One of the contemporaries of Columbus’ time did make many astronomical observations that led to the understanding of the structure of the universe.

This was Nicolaus Copernicus of Poland. Copernicus is known for the theory of “Heliocentrism,” the idea that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun, not the other way around (all revolving around the Earth).

Copernicus was well-educated and lived from 1473-1543. It will remain for Galileo to prove Copernicus correct.

Shifting gears, but still within the same era, we have two outstanding theologians up next. Martin Luther was born before Columbus discovered America and died afterward. His life spanned 1483-1546. Another theologian, a bit younger and slightly less well known, is Menno Simons, who lived from 1496-1561.

Martin Luther, of course, started the Protestant Reformation, although he didn’t want to. He just wanted to fix a few things (about 95 of them, nailed on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517) in the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther had a number of radical ideas for the time. For instance, salvation comes through grace, not deeds. Also, he had the radical idea that parishioners should be able to read the Bible in their own language. In some of his later works, Luther had less-than-kind views toward others not of his thinking, including Jews, Roman Catholics and Anabaptists, among others.

Which leads us right into Menno Simons.

Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest from the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and so forth). He also disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church and became part of the Protestant Reformers. Today, his followers are called Mennonites.

Sound familiar?

People of this heritage are also called Anabaptists, but I’ll leave it to my Mennonite friends to explain this exactly, for I fear I will not get this completely correct. These folks managed to have enemies all around – the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther’s followers and the government. Horribly persecuted, they were driven out of central Europe through Switzerland. I have visited a well where one of the followers was martyred in Bern, Switzerland.

If you have the privilege of visiting a Mennonite Church today, you will find they sing at a very slow cadence in honor of their martyred ancestors. Back in the days of Menno Simons, they would sing when someone was being killed (I think drowning was a favorite punishment of the persecutors) and the opposition attending would dance and laugh. Hence, they decided to sing slowly, inhibiting the propensity to dance.

Today, Mennonites and other “Old Order” faiths can be found in the United States, Canada, Belize and other South American countries. There are still some Mennonites in Russia, although many were a victim of Stalin’s purges in the 1920s and 1930s.

Persecution of the faithful has a long history. “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” (by John Foxe – 1516-87) with nearly continual updates, is interesting reading for those who wish to view one side of the story of the persecution of Christians.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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