Jerry Falwell, now commonly regarded as a radical Baptist preacher, was not always known by this label. In fact, as the Google Ngram Viewer shows, Falwell was relatively unknown until his rise in the mid 1970s. I argue that this was as a result of his entry into the political arena, a space he had neglected from his pulpit until that time.
In 1977, Falwell supported Anita Bryant’s efforts to repeal a Miami (Dade County) ordinance granting equal rights to gays and lesbians. It was at this stage in the mid-1970s that Falwell began to figure prominently on the national scene. This claim can be verified by the Google Ngram Viewer, which is based on 5.2 million books that have been digitized. It tracks the usage of a word or name in popular media. In this case, even in 1970, fourteen years after he began preaching, Falwell appeared in only 0.0000004833% of articles, books, etc. over the course of the year. By 1980, however, his name was appearing in 0.0000095956%, an almost 200% increase over just one decade. For this reason, it is almost impossible to formulate a perception of Falwell preceding his entry into politics, because, quite simply, people outside of his following and Christianity simply did not care what this man had to say. To provide contextualization for the time, he was almost completely indistinguishable from William Essek Kenyon, who sermonized in a similar manner as Falwell and who received similar media coverage to Falwell until the ‘70s. Now of course, it would be extremely impressive if someone could even identify Kenyon, whose name today does not even compete in the same league as Falwell’s.