Do You Know Jacob Knapp?

A Short Biography of a Great Baptist Evangelist

 “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-12

How many of us have ever heard of Jacob Knapp? In his day, he was one of the best known preachers in America. Often titled “Elder” Knapp because of the Baptist teaching that the senior officer of the local church is the bishop/elder/pastor (see Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Peter 5:1-4), this man has a unique place in the history of Baptist work in this country. Evangelist-historian Fred Barlow spoke of him in these words: “Rare will be the reader who will recognize the name of Jacob Knapp, and rarer yet will be the Baptist who will identify him as the individual who is considered to be the first of that now long line of elite worthies—Baptist evangelists!”

Born in the state of New York in 1799, Jacob Knapp was converted to Christ as a teenager. However, his family’s Episcopalian church affiliation and the temptations of youth soon drew him away from his first zeal to be a true disciple and brought him into a period of confusion and backsliding. Eventually several circumstances ordained by Providence, along with renewed study of the Bible, brought Knapp back from wandering and to the point where he recognized immersion as the scriptural mode of water baptism. He then submitted to scriptural baptism and united with the Baptists in 1819. In 1822 he answered God’s call to the preaching ministry and entered college at Hamilton, New York.

Knapp’s preaching ministry spanned over fifty years, and forty of those years he was engaged in itinerant evangelistic work. He led both localchurch and cooperative evangelistic campaigns that brought thousands of people to Jesus Christ.

Baptists had not had a prominent evangelist since the Great Awakening in the previous century, but Knapp’s “protracted meetings” brought him into prominence and changed the way Baptists thought about revival and the winning of souls. In our time of confusion and controversy over revival, Baptists need to get reacquainted with their first “great” nineteenth-century American evangelist, Jacob Knapp.

He Had an Amazing Ministry

His success in revival work was so phenomenal that it is surprising how little attention church historians have given to Jacob Knapp. Not that the record has completely ignored him. Torbet notes in A History of the Baptists that he, “Was a successful evangelist” and also “responsible for the impetus to converted drunkards to organize… the famous temperance fellowship known as the Washington Society.”

James Beller states that, “His revivalist work… ranged widely over New York, New England, and the Western States, including California.” He calls him “the great Baptist evangelist of the mid-nineteenth century,” and devotes much space in one of his Baptist histories to Knapp’s ministry in St. Louis in 1858. Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia says that, “His power over audiences was remarkable, and the fruits of his long toil in his chosen sphere, while not always genuine [a criticism leveled at Knapp sometimes by his critics], were believed in many cases to be so, and always abundant.”

Knapp is referenced repeatedly in Henry C. Fish’s well-respected Handbook of Revivals, always in a positive way by this contemporary of his. David Cummins notes the date of Knapp’s ordination in his well-loved This Day in Baptist History, and says that “wherever Jacob Knapp was invited to preach, great results followed.”

Brackney’s Baptist history includes a record of Knapp’s evangelistic work and states that the best attended of his campaigns were in Rochester, New York (1839), New York City (1840), Boston (1841), and Washington, D.C. (1843). At the meeting of the Illinois Baptist Pastoral Union held the year he died (1874), it was said that, “No man in America ever equaled him in the number of his meetings and the extent of the territory they covered.”

The great Baptist historian Thomas Armitage described Elder Knapp with these words:

His statements of truth were devoid of all attempt at the rhetorical finish, but he was unusually fervent and fluent. His mind was marked by strong logical tendencies, and his sermons were full of homely illustrations, apt passages from the Bible, and close knowledge of human nature…. Crowds followed him, whole communities were moved by his labors, and great numbers were added to the Churches…. The writer heard him preach many times, and judged him, as he is apt to judge men, more by his prayers than his sermons, for he was a man of much prayer. His appearance in the pulpit was very striking; his face pale, his skin dark, his mouth wide, with a singular cast in one eye bordering on a squint; he was full of native wit, almost gestureless, and vehement in denunciation, yet so cool in his deliberation that with the greatest ease he gave every trying circumstance its appropriate but unexpected turn.

Knapp was not formed from anybody else’s mold. He was himself, filled with the Holy Spirit. Accounts of his words and works always record some of his humorous or startling deeds. At the Mulberry Street Baptist Church in New York City, an arrogant unbeliever stood up and called on the congregation to pray for the devil. Without hesitation, Knapp from the pulpit responded calmly, “Brethren, this young man has asked you to pray for his father.”

There are several stories of Elder Knapp’s straightforward and startling remarks bearing wonderful fruit. One comes out of the revival at Brooklyn, New York, late in 1838. One night, Knapp preached, as he had previously announced, on the subject of atheism. In that sermon he said that atheism is, “The little end of nothing whittled down to a point.” He was referring to atheism’s obsession with denial.

The statement struck a listening atheist in a profound way. Instead of angering him, it humbled him and caused him to reconsider his devotion to denial. For days he suffered mentally from his plaguing doubts about atheism until at a prayer meeting he stood before the gathered Christians and asked their forgiveness for his loud and repeated insults of them and their religion. When Jacob Knapp asked him if they could pray for him, the man said that he was past saving and would surely be damned. After the evangelist spoke loving words of entreaty and Gospel truth to the unbeliever, he went home. However, that night he turned to Christ, and the next day he came back a happy Christian.

Jacob Knapp was used of God to win over 100,000 people to Jesus Christ, he preached over 16,000 sermons, he influenced hundreds of men to enter the ministry, and he brought into Baptist work the practice of holding “protracted” revival campaigns. He ought to be one of the best-known and most-appreciated figures in Baptist history.

His first full-time ministries were pastorates of two churches in his native state of New York. When he began his itinerant preaching, Knapp was based for fifteen years (1833-1848) in New York State, and then the following twenty-five years (1849-1874) in Rockford, Illinois.

He Was an Evangelist

It was during the time when Jacob Knapp served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Watertown, New York, that he was convinced of God’s call for him to begin travelling as an evangelist. In the Bible, the evangelist plays an important role in the program of God. The term means “one who proclaims or announces good news,” and it was a role filled by Jesus Christ Himself. He was an itinerant preacher who went from place to place proclaiming the Gospel (good news) of the Kingdom.

Others who filled this position in the New Testament were Philip and the Apostle Paul. The itinerant evangelist played a very important role in the American “Great Awakening” of the eighteenth century, but the only evangelists of any prominence in Knapp’s day were Presbyterians or Congregationalist. Jacob Knapp had no living mentor or role-model in the work of a Baptist evangelist when he set out to do this work. But he was convinced of the need. So he left everything behind that he had known and began preaching in revival campaigns and evangelistic efforts at the invitation of pastors across New York. Historian Edward Brand said that he eventually became “one of the greatest evangelists of modern times.”

He Lived by Faith

Materially and financially things did not go well for Knapp in the first months and years of his evangelistic work. God was teaching him to live by faith in Him for the supply of his physical needs, and those of his growing family. Soon he saw the financial trials as an important part of what the Lord was doing in his life.

“I looked upon the past eight years of my ministry [as a pastor] as comparatively wasted,” he later commented. “I felt that I had turned aside for ‘filthy lucre.’ My motives seemed to have been impure,” he said. After a period of anxiety about the predicament he faced, he made some firm, life-transforming decisions. “I broke from all worldly concerns, and consecrated myself anew to the service of God. I viewed the unconverted as toppling on the brink of hell, and many of the churches, and ministers too, as sleeping at their post.”

The need for his preaching and influence, and the genuineness of his call, were undeniable in his mind. He must keep at his work, and trust God to take care of the problems. He writes, “Yet it is proper to state, that I did not reach this conclusion without counting the cost. I saw that I should be cutting myself loose from any certain and regular source of support.”

Beyond and in addition to the financial trials he faced, Knapp also faced a trial of faith due to his encountering unexpected and severe criticism for what he was saying and doing. He said, “I was called on to encounter great opposition, alike from professed Christians and the avowed enemies of Christ, even from ministers of the Gospel…. About this time, also, I met with several severe losses in pecuniary matters, so as to render my reliance for support still more precarious.”

But in my distress I cast my burden on the Lord. I sought to know the will of God. I cried unto the Lord and, blessed be His name, very soon He made known His ways and lifted upon me the light of His countenance. After spending one whole day in fasting and prayer, and continuing my fast until midnight, the place where I was staying, was filled with the manifested glory of God. His presence appeared to me, not exactly in visible form, but as really to my recognition as though He had come in person, and a voice seemed to say to me, “Hast thou ever lacked a field in which to labor?”

I answered, “Not a day.”

“Have I not sustained thee, and blessed thy labors?”

I answered, “Yea, Lord.”

“Then learn that henceforth thou art not dependent upon thy brethren, but on Me. Have no concern but to go on in thy work. My grace shall be sufficient for thee.”

Then he made his decision. “I made up my mind, when I started, to make no demand, to do nothing, to say nothing, in reference to the matter of compensation, but to leave it entirely with God and the people.” So have many Baptist evangelists since that day, and God has not failed them.

He Stood up for Revival

Much of the controversy Knapp encountered in his ministry was over the errant theology that had dominated the Baptist churches in his part of the country for some time prior to his ministry. He referred to these unscriptural ideas as the “hyper-Calvinistic tenets which constituted the staple of pulpit ministrations.”

In his autobiography he explained, “These views prevailed throughout the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.” Although the nation had experienced revival in a very powerful way in the past century, many of the Calvinists insisted that revival comes as a sovereign act of God, and cannot be obtained by anything done by the saints. They believed that revival should not be sought, even through repentance and prayer.

“The idea that God’s people could do anything as a means of promoting a revival was scouted as an impiety,” Knapp remembered. This view was contrary to what Knapp believed and preached. He understood that the Bible teaches that believers can be revived and filled with the Holy Spirit if they will humble themselves and seek God’s face.

He pointed out that revival is promised by the Lord to those who turn from their wicked ways. Revival can be sought and found. He not only saw this exciting truth in the Bible, but he also saw it regularly in his ministry. To Jacob Knapp, it was obvious that God will revive the saints when they look to Him for revival, just as He will save the sinner who will repent and turn to Jesus.

Based on these convictions, he was one of the evangelists who used the so-called “anxious seat” and the inquiry room and called on people to repent right on the spot. We call this practice an “altar call” or a “public invitation.” Knapp was criticized for giving public invitations, especially by the strict Calvinists.

Jacob Knapp tells the story of a place where Calvinism had a particularly bad influence, but where he was welcomed to preach. One night, the results of the altar call persuaded one of the Calvinists!

As I was preparing the way for the inquirers to come forward to be prayed for, brother Duncan Dunbar stepped up to me and whispered in my ear, “Brother Knapp, it will not do to call sinners to the anxious seats in this city; the prejudices of the people will not admit of it.”

I replied, “I will not be crowded into the gutters by the prejudices of the people; I am going straight through; let the consequences be what they may.” The invitation was then given; upon which some thirty souls came forward, weeping and begging for mercy. Brother Dunbar, seeing this expression, at once arose and seconded the appeal, when several others came forward.

Another subject of controversy with which Knapp had to deal was the matter of Christian holiness. He believed in the power of Christ to make sinners free, and the capacity of Christians to overcome the domination of sin in their lives through living by faith in Christ. However, when confronted with those who taught with the Wesleyans that Christians should experience a “second work of grace” that would eradicate their sinful nature and enable them to live in a state of sinless perfection, he opposed the doctrine. Yet he also opposed some of those who opposed that doctrine, but seemed overly antagonistic to the concept of victorious living. He said, “As for myself, I was never troubled with too much holiness; my difficulty has rather been the want of it.”

He Was a Baptist

Like many evangelists that preceded and followed him, Jacob Knapp often cooperated with evangelical churches which were not of his own denomination. Some great harvests of souls were reaped in these broad-based cooperative campaigns. He loved soul-winners of all groups, but he himself was a convinced Baptist. He held that New Testament Christianity includes believers’ baptism by immersion, autonomous local churches, separation of church and state, personal soul liberty, and other “Baptist distinctives,” and these convictions eventually led him to change his views on cooperative evangelism.

“I usually called in the aid of all evangelical denominations, namely, the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational. All labored together, and I was content to leave the division of the spoils with the pastors and churches after I had gone. But I found this method fraught with serious evils,” he explained late in his life.

My conscience was not at ease. I was commissioned to go and, “Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” I asked myself, “How can I give a good account of my stewardship, if I do not fully carry out my commission?”

At length the subject came up before me in this form: Suppose I should die tonight, and at the judgment Jesus should call me to Him and say, “My servant, Jacob, have you carried out your commission, preached my Gospel, discipled, and baptized?” I should be compelled to reply, “I have preached thy blessed Gospel as faithfully as I knew how; made many disciples; sometimes I have baptized, and sometimes I have not.”

“Why did you sometimes not baptize?” I imagined my Saviour to ask; and I supposed myself obliged to say, “Well, Master, my Pedo-baptist brethren [those who practice the christening of infants] had adopted the recent custom of sprinkling, and I could not carry out my commission without giving offense.” I concluded that it were better for me to go to the stake, than be under the necessity of meeting my Lord and Saviour with a lame reply like this.

The long-standing difficulty that Baptists have in working with even godly evangelical pastors who are wrong about baptism, church polity, and various doctrinal controversies brought a man who had worked in harmony with many of them for years to the point where he gave up the practice. And he gave interesting advice to fellow-Baptists who want to reach the masses for Christ:

I think that if all Baptists would carry out the commission in the right spirit, and turn not to the right or to the left in all revivals, and on all occasions; baptize converts as fast as they believe; never cringe, never exult, and be a little more patient, all the children of God would soon be led to see their errors; abandon infant baptism, and adopt immersion.

He held to unity based on sound doctrine, not unity based on minimizing doctrine.

He Bore Fruit to the End

Jacob Knapp’s evangelistic preaching won souls to Christ in great numbers. Many of his campaigns extended over several weeks, and brought hundreds into the churches. One revival in a local church in New York City in 1835 saw two hundred saved and baptized. In a campaign organized by Baptists in Boston in 1841, multitudes were converted. Similar efforts in Washington, D.C., bore much fruit.

At Washington, a delegation from Richmond, Virginia, begged him to come to their city and help them win the lost there. However, they stipulated that he must not preach against slavery in Richmond because of the trouble his preaching on this subject would cause down in Virginia. Knapp treated slavery as a sin, a violation of the royal law, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (James 2:8), and he insisted that men should repent of it. And he would not be bound by a commitment to avoid preaching against a particular sin. So the invitation was turned down on this basis. However, some weeks later the Richmond brethren contacted him again, and agreed for him to come without any restraint on his preaching. Knapp’s Richmond campaign resulted in much good, but ended in a firestorm that brought it to an abrupt end. He always regarded the justification of slavery as a hindrance to revival, and faced similar situations in other places south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In 1858, the great year of revival just before the Civil War, Jacob Knapp was summoned to the Second Baptist Church of St. Louis, and played an important role in the promotion of revival in that city. The Baptist church received 150 new members before his departure, and St. Louis was powerfully affected by his sermons and influence.

As noted above, Knapp moved to Rockford, Illinois, in 1848. That is where he and his wife Electa are buried (in the Greenwood Cemetery). His move was prompted by invitations from friends and relatives in the First Baptist Church there and by his interest in working in the west.

When he first arrived in Rockford, the church was without a pastor and Knapp was asked to fill the pulpit. He served at the church as an interim pastor from November 1848 to June 1849, during which time the church experienced revival and a great harvest of souls. Under Knapp’s preaching, the church “saw the largest ingathering of souls they had ever experienced.” They received 62 additions to the membership by baptism, and 17 by letter. When the congregation called a man to be their regular pastor, Knapp continued his membership there, and was invited to speak as a guest preacher in the pulpit of First Baptist many times.

During his time living in Rockford, Jacob Knapp kept up a vigorous evangelistic ministry, more in the western states. He even went to California to preach. As he weakened physically, the Baptists of Rockford heard him preach more often. The church minutes of that time contain notations about his sermons such as these:

  • “Sunday, August 17, 1873—Preaching by Rev. Jacob Knapp. House well filled with attentive listeners to the faithful preaching of the word of God.”
  • “September 1, 1873—Elder Jacob Knapp preached today from the following verse, ‘The redemption of the soul is precious and it ceaseth forever.’ A very powerful sermon and probably or nearly the last of his sermons. He will soon end his labors with us and his warning voice will no longer be heard by either saint or sinner.”

Jacob Knapp went to Heaven on March 3, 1874.

The need is great for the ranks of Baptist evangelists to be replenished with men of the dedication, intelligence, theology, faith, and power of Jacob Knapp. The problems of our present world would be significantly diminished if the powers of darkness were challenged by an army of Spirit-filled evangelists living by faith and fearlessly proclaiming the truth about sin and salvation to saint and sinner alike. May God hear our prayers for such laborers to be called and sent into His harvest!

You can download the autobiography of Jacob Knapp from Google Books.

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