Charting 125 Years of Christian Change

One of the more interesting tools on the internet is Google’s Ngram Viewer.  It allows you to search words and phrases through about 500 years of book history.  You select your phrase, tell it the time-frame you want, and it will search all the books Google has scanned into the system’s repertoire.  I decided to put it to the test with some Christian phrases and found a several interesting results.

Going into this I thought I could guess how these would chart, but always ended up wrong. All the charts show a drop in use of Christian terms between about 1930 and 1980.  Before and after those years, there are some significant changes also but nothing so apparent.

A few technical notes to add —  I used the category “English” which combines both British and American sources.  Also, the Ngram Viewer only goes up to the year 2008 so all of the charts are based off of that year, and 125 years back.  I had to shrink down the charts to get them to fit on the blog, so I apologize the years are jumbled at the bottom.  I included above each graph the years that are represented.

I hope you gain some insight.  Please post in the comments anything you see in these charts.

ON HEAVEN AND HELL:

I find it interesting that “heaven” tracks, for most of this chart, higher than “hell” especially since the word “hell” is often used in other phrases or slang sayings.  (For instance the phrase, “go to hell”, peaks in the 1930s.) The early 1990s are the only time that “hell” is actually more prevalent than “heaven”.

125-year-trend: 1883-2008:

  Zoomed-in to 1970-2008:

 

ON CHURCH AND JESUS:

You can see two things easily from this chart.  The Ngram Viewer is case-sensitive, so I entered both “church” and “Church”.  It makes the results more interesting.  The non-capitalized version of church is now much more prominent than it once was, seemingly representing our more casual writing styles and views of church.

The next thing easily seen is that the term “Jesus” is now as prominent as the word “church”.  (Although, if you combine both forms of capitalization “church” still beats Jesus.)  It is hard to see on the chart below but “Jesus” actually was ahead of “church” between 2002 and 2007.  This shows a major shift in our overall thinking of how we view Jesus and church interacting with Christianity.

125-year-trend: 1883-2008:

Zoomed-in to 1958-2008:

THE HOLY SPIRIT VS. THE FATHER

On this graph I pit “the Holy Spirit” against “the Father”.  Before charting this I thought that “the Holy Spirit” would grow continually throughout the 20th century since Pentecostalist revivals started early in the century.  Instead we see a decline until about 1940 in both terms and then see some growth.  In the 1970s you see “the Holy Spirit” growing faster than “the Father” which, if I had to guess, would attribute to the growth of the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movement.

125-year-trend: 1883-2008:

Zoomed-in to 1958-2008:

 

STUDY THE *

Below I’ve listed charts looking at the phrase “study the *”.  The asterisk is a wildcard so the system filled the word in on it’s own.  This chart shows a very interesting change in our collective thought process. Only two terms, “study the effect” and “study the history”, appear in all the charts when broken into 25-year categories. Check-out the chart at the bottom comparing those terms with rise and fall of “study the Bible”.

On the 1933-1958 and 1958-1983 charts “study the Bible” does not appear at all.  On the 1908-1933 chart the phrase starts dropping but then makes a major jump to finish fourth on the 1983-2008 chart.

125-year-trend: 1883-2008:

Zoomed-in to 1883-1908:

Zoomed-in to 1908-1933:

Zoomed-in to 1933-1958:

Zoomed-in to 1958-1983:

Zoomed-in to 1983-2008:


The top terms:
Only two terms, “study the effect” and “study the history”, appear in all the charts.  Here are those terms charted with “study the Bible” for the whole time period from 1883-2008.

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Those are all the charts I have for now.  Please comment about any trends you catch or why you think some of this happened.  I think the current trends of Christianity are very different than what most of us have seen in our lifetimes.  It will be interesting to do these same charts in another 25 years!

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)

Photo by Rafa.Garcés

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