Noah has been America’s #1 boy’s name for four years straight. Elijah just cracked the top 10 for the first time, and Ethan and Jacob are long-time fixtures there. At first glance, it might seem that we’re in the middle of a biblical baby name boom.
Don’t believe it. In fact, the popularity of biblical names has hit an all-time low in the United States. I first found that result when I ran a tally four years ago, and despite the rise of Elijah and friends, the Bible name rate has continued to drop since then.
You can see the historical trend in the graph below. The bold red line at the top represents the total number of American babies receiving Bible names since 1880. The dotted lines break down the total into Old Testament names, New Testament names, and names appearing prominently in both texts.
At the left of the graph you can see the traditional dominance of New Testament names like John and Mary start to decline. In the mid-20th Century they were joined by a new group of biblical hits like Michael, Deborah and Daniel, creating a second peak. Then in the 1970s a new rush toward Old Testament names like Joshua and Rachel kept pace with a further decline of the New Testament classics. Since the 1990s, though, the total trend is simply down.
Why then, does the top of today’s popularity chart look so biblical, even compared to decades past? The short answer is style. The popular Bible names of the past were so very popular that we stopped hearing their roots. If you walked into a room and met four men named Dave, Tom, Steve and Jim, would it even register that they’re an all-biblical group? Today’s names, in contrast, are chosen for the fresh, bible-first style that comes from not being popular in past generations. (Read more about the evolution of biblical name style.)
There’s another huge difference between then and now. Yes, a biblical name still tops the boys’ charts, just as one did 50 years ago and 100 years ago. But take a look at the usage of those three generations’ favorite names, John, Michael and Noah:
Even as today’s #1, Noah doesn’t come close to the top biblical names of the past. And it wasn’t just John and Michael back then. Each of the top eleven biblical boys’ names from 50 years ago — Michael, David, James, John, Mark, Thomas, Timothy, Steven, Joseph, Paul and Daniel – was more popular than Noah is today.
Traditional namers may now be flocking to strongly biblical-styled names, but those traditional namers make up an ever-shrinking portion of America’s parents. For every Peter, Paul and Mary born today, there are two Kaydens, Brysons and Skylars. So despite what the top-10 lists may tell us, the golden age of biblical baby names is in the past.