Hating the “sinners”: Graphing how Americans talked about sin since 1800

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Photo by April/rottnapples via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/rottnapples/9286019703/

Photo by April/rottnapples via Flickr creative commons

Photo by April/rottnapples via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/rottnapples/9286019703/

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

Americans don’t talk about sin they way they used to. We may still “sin” but we’re less likely to be “sinners.”

I decided to look at how Americans have written about sin after reading a Christianity Today piece on Lester Ruth‘s research on older hymns and contemporary worship songs. The Duke Divinity School professor compared the language in the 70 most popular hymns prior to1860 with 110 praise songs that topped the charts since 1989. Among his findings was a difference in how “sin” is used:

Ruth also found today’s praise songs never use sin as a verb per se, only as a noun; hymns predominantly use sin as a noun (including sinner) and occasionally as a verb (including sinning).

But hymns and evangelical worship songs aren’t the only place people talk about sin. How do we talk about sin? Do people talk about sin as a verb or noun? Are we “sinners” or people who “sinned”? Or, to turn the phrase: do we love the “sinner” and hate “to sin”?

To track the possible change in language, I used Google Ngram viewer. This database tracks the relative frequency of words published each year. After trying several versions of “sin”, I compared the most common noun (“sinner”) and the most common verb (“sinned”). The graph shows the percentage difference each year (e.g., 100% means “sinner” occurs twice as often as “sinned”). So, a decline doesn’t mean sin is more or less a topic in books; a decline means that “sinner” is used less often compared to the use of “sinned.”

The graph shows changes in the discussion of sin, with Americans less likely to talk about “sinners” even when talking about sinning.

There are three general eras in the graph:

  • 1800-1860s. Prior to 1860, people wrote “sinners” three times for every one “sinned.”
  • 1860s-1900. The major decline in “sinners” (vis-a-vis “sinned”) came in the second half of the 19th Century.
  • 1900-1960s. The relative difference between “sinned” and “sinner” remained steady until the 1960s, when it declined again.
  • 1960s-2000’s. The changes over the past fifty years may appear small, but they’re important. Americans were twice as likely to write about a “sinner” (vis-a-vis “sinned”) in 1960 than in 2000.

This snapshot (and quick one at that) shows a change for a view of sin as something that embodies a person. Sin is something we do, but it doesn’t define us.

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  • Harris

    Can someone explain why ‘homosexuality’ and ‘abortion’ became the greatest talking points for hypocrites?

    If the Dugger scandal revealed one thing, it is this: People fondly talk about the sins of others but overlook their own sinfulness -HYPOCRITES!

    You can’t be both a Christian and a hypocrite at the same time, they are mutually exclusive.

  • JR

    Having sinned in the past does not make someone a hypocrite. Past sins should not define a person eternally, for then we would all be hypocrite. Duggar turned himself in, he was underage himself, and if the sin was never repeated….is he forever a child molester?
    Now when someone like Jim Baker is sermonizing on sin while trolling motels for sex at night…..now that’s a hypocrite .

  • Jack

    The problem with playing the “let’s-find-the-hypocrite” game in order to marginalize politically incorrect opinion is that it can be played equally effectively against those holding politically correct opinions.

    Hence a word to the wise:

    Don’t do it….it will blow up in your face.

  • Pingback: Number of “Sinners” Is Declining | anti-itch meditation()

  • I would be curious to analyze the decline in the usage of “sin” with the usage of the word “mistake.” It seems mistake is the new word for sin, but I have no proof of this.

  • Larry

    Christian fundamentalism needs a tangible enemy to rally around besides increasing modernity.

    Antisemitism got a big PR black eye in the 1940’s. Racism became too difficult to sustain in public with the end of de jure segregation (its still alive and well but has to stay in the background). Sectarianism fell out of fashion as conservative sects move closer to each other in beliefs.

    So they moved on to a more socially acceptable form of bigotry to rally around. Anti-gay rhetoric But now even that is losing its luster to the Christian bigots. They still have Islamaphobia and Dominionism (essentially hatred of democratic principles and religious freedom) to move on to once they have conceded their loss on the anti-gay front.

    To virtually every self-professed conservative Christian out there, hypocrisy is a requirement to membership in that club. One cannot be a finger wagging wannabe Jeremiah without it.

  • Larry

    The problem with “lets find the hypocrite among the conservative Christian set” is there are too many targets. Finding one who is not a hypocrite is the real task. A fools errand if ever there was one.

    Wagging fingers at people, professing self-proclaimed mastery of scriptural interpretation, demanding that all Christians believe as one does, all requires a high level of hypocrisy to work. But being called a hypocrite does not match the joy in the fundamentalist belief of being a “True Christian” and all others are merely hellbound fools.