“Finney with a Twist”: Elder Jacob Knapp and the Origins of Baptist Revivalism
Synopsis: The methods of Charles Grandison Finney are well-documented. How his methods infiltrated Baptist churches is less-well known. In the 1830s and 40s, itinerant Baptist pastor Jacob Knapp adopted Finney’s methods and travelled extensively spreading his revivalist methods among the Baptists. What emerged was “Finney with a Twist”—an amalgamation of Finney-ism specifically modified to the Baptist context. To Finney’s protracted meetings, anxious bench, and anxious room, Knapp added two features that continue as standard-bearers of revivalism in Baptist churches today: spontaneous baptisms and child baptisms. Each of these innovations constituted a departure from Baptist norms and charted a course that continues to influence Baptist life today.
Spontaneous baptisms have been all the rage in the SBC during the past decade. Since Elevation Church made headlines for baptizing people on the spot, the practice has had its share of supporters as well as detractors. Today, many prominent SBC voices and churches commend the practice, some even arguing that it’s the key to reversing declining baptismal statistics and to foment revivals in our churches. As baptisms have become more spontaneous, their subjects have grown younger and younger. At the Southern Baptist Convention in 2021, then-SBC Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd called on churches to raise baptism statistics by lowering the age of the subject of baptisms.
Whether you criticize such actions as novel or defend them as biblically warranted, it turns out they have an older pedigree than many expect. Both spontaneous baptisms and child baptisms find their modern origins in the work of a revivalist whose name is virtually unknown today: Elder Jacob Knapp (1799–1874).
Knapp explicitly borrowed from Charles G. Finney to develop a uniquely Baptist form of revivalism, which can be fairly dubbed “Finney with a Twist.” Alongside protracted meetings, anxious seats, and an insistence on an immediate decision, Knapp introduced two new features which shape Baptist life today: spontaneous baptisms and child baptisms. This article traces these six key aspects of Knapp’s revivalism and how they were introduced into Baptist churches. By more clearly understanding the origins of these practices, pastors and congregants will have a better historical perspective for evaluating their consistency with Baptist polity and the teachings of Scripture.
INTRODUCING ELDER JACOB KNAPP
For many years, Elder Jacob Knapp was an ordinary pastor. He preached, counseled, encouraged, and shepherded a small congregation in upstate New York. But something was gnawing at Knapp that would not go away. While the Presbyterians had Finney, Knapp lamented that “there was no one man who stood forth as the champion and exemplar of revival measures” among the Baptists. One day, Knapp felt God calling him to be that man. So in 1833, Knapp quit his pastorate of eight years.
As he traveled from place to place, Knapp perfected Finney’s techniques. He eventually published a complete record of his work and methods in his 1868 autobiography. Once he hit the road, he was an immediate success. By 1840, Knapp was “almost as well-known as Finney.” In fact, one contemporary claims that it was only through Knapp’s influence that “Protracted meetings, as a system of measures, had acquired a permanent place” in the life of Baptist churches. By the time of his death in 1874, Knapp claimed to have converted 100,000 persons at over 150 separate revivals.
What were his methods and how did they become prominent in many Baptist churches?
THE INFLUENCE OF CHARLES G. FINNEY
Knapp was clearly influenced by Finney. In his autobiography, he wrote that around 1833 “the practice of holding protracted meetings began to enter in amongst the Baptist churches.” For Finney, their purpose was simply for people to “devote a series of days to religious services, in order to make a more powerful impression of divine things on the minds of the people.” An outside preacher would be brought in who agreed “to stay on the ground till the meeting is done,” whether that meant days or weeks. Between 1833 and 1874, Knapp led hundreds of such meetings, traveling from city to city, and preached nightly, sometimes for several weeks. But what made Finney and Knapp’s meetings different from others was their use of “the anxious seat.”
Knapp devotes a whole chapter to this in his autobiography: “The Utility of Anxious-Seats.” He explains how at multiple points in the service he would give an invitation for the members of the audience to take their seats in the pews at the front of the room dubbed “the anxious bench” or “the anxious seat.” For Knapp, this was the key to a successful revival. First, it challenged the sinner to take a stand. Second, it required a public committal, making it nearly impossible for the sinner to backtrack once he had taken the first step. As Knapp writes, “It is more dishonorable and more mortifying to go back than it is to go forward.” Hence, “The more obstacles that can be put in the way of recedingthe better. … All the barriers that can be put in the way of the anxious, to prevent their going back, should be piled up behind them.” Third, it was a convenient way of making a public acknowledgement of our need of Christ. Fourth, the effect of seeing others go forward encouraged others to follow. “Thus,” Knapp writes, “one can be the means of bringing others to a right decision by the force of example.” Fifth, by this means, ministers were able to immediately ascertain the success of their labors. All this and more can be accomplished by admonishing sinners to take specially designated seats in the front.
At the conclusion of the service, those seated in the “anxious seats,” would follow Knapp to an “inquiry meeting,” sometimes called the “anxious room.” (Knapp’s critics called them the “finishing-off-room.”) At this meeting, Knapp focused less on giving “instructions to the anxious” and more on urging an “immediate decision—an instantaneous repentance, and faith in the Lord Jesus.” He writes, “I get all on their knees, and set them to crying to God (both saints and sinners), till he sends down salvation.”
Not unlike Finney, for Knapp the “anxious room” was a place to urge sinners to immediately profess faith in Christ. Whereas “thirty-five or forty years ago,” Knapp wrote, “Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists would tell inquirers to go home, read their Bibles, reflect upon their condition, look within, dig deep, and be not deceived,” Finney had introduced a more effective technique. As Knapp reflected, such “methods of introspection” often failed to result in conversion. Instead, Knapp called for “an immediate surrender of their hearts to God” and insisted on “the exercise of faith and repentance on the spot” as a matter of obedience.
BAPTIZING FINNEY’S REVIVALISM
So far none of Knapp’s methods could be described as novel. But in 1840, Knapp introduced spontaneous baptisms and child baptisms.
While ministering in New York City in 1840, at the Baptist Tabernacle in Mulberry Street, Knapp began practicing what he called “instantaneous baptisms.” While Knapp was meeting with “the anxious” upstairs, the church was examining candidates for membership downstairs and baptizing them on the spot. Knapp writes, “As fast as [they] found peace in believing with all their hearts, I sent them below to present themselves to the church.” In fact, at one point, the deacons even complained to Knapp that he was “sending the converts faster than the church could receive them.”
Knapp acknowledged that “instantaneous baptisms” were contrary to Baptist practice and history. According to Knapp, Baptists in his day “were opposed to sudden conversions,” saying that “the seed must have time to germinate.” But Knapp thought it ridiculous to require “converts [to] come before a committee and wait a month before they could be baptized.” Not only was this process slow, it seemed grounded in sinful suspicion. “It seemed to be taken for granted,” Knapp writes, “that every applicant at the doors of the church must be either a hypocrite or the victim of self-delusion.” Such tedious processes unnecessarily “retard a revival,” whereas the instantaneous baptism of converts puts wind in its sails.
Moreover, Knapp brought Scripture to bear in opposition to delay, citing the Book of Acts in support. After all, he argues, in Acts 2, 3000 were baptized “the same day,” and the Philippian jailer was baptized not only the same night of his conversion, but “the same hour” (Acts 16:33). The case of Saul of Tarsus,” he argues, “is the only one recorded in the New Testament of a person whose baptism was delayed after conversion,” being baptized three days later. As Knapp concludes, “The apostles understood the [Great] commission to require of them the instantaneous baptism of all who professed their faith in Christ.” And again: “The New Testament makes no provision of a moment's delay between the exercise of faith and the act of baptism.”
Knapp’s innovations aside, it is worth noting that his “instantaneous baptisms” still required the approval of the congregation, and invariably led directly to uniting with that church in membership. In other words, despite their immediacy, even Knapp recognized the necessity of the congregational examination of a candidate prior to baptism and the inseparable link between baptism and church membership.
At the same time, Knapp’s bar for membership and baptism was far short of the rigorous examinations which were common in Baptist churches in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of probing questions and assessing for fruit of conversion, Knapp urges a “mere profession” bar for baptism and membership. He writes,
It is very evident that the apostles in no instance demanded of a candidate a probationary trial, nor even a metaphysical analysis of the workings of their minds under conviction, as prerequisites of baptism. They simply required a sincere expression of repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ.
And adopting such a bar for baptism leads straight into Knapp’s second innovation in Baptist history: baptizing children.
An examination of baptismal ages among Baptists in America from 1700–1840, shows that the most common age for baptism was 19. In fact, the few instances where the baptismal candidate was 12 or 13 were treated as exceptional cases. By the 1880s, this had flipped entirely. At this point, 12 or 13 was the norm; 19 became the exception. At some point, in the mid-nineteenth century a shift occurred in Baptist churches, much of which can be attributed to Knapp.
Having lowered the bar for baptism to a “mere profession” without examination of fruit, Knapp cannot help but open the door for the baptism of children. He admits this himself, “A child who is old enough to repent and believe is not too young to be baptized.” And Knapp practiced what he preached. In February 1867, at the Central Baptist Church in Trenton, NJ, seventeen children belonging to the Sunday School were baptized. The following Sunday, seventy more children joined the church, largely due, in Knapp's mind, to the moral influence of the children who had been baptized the Sunday previously.
There’s no question that revivalism is alive and well in Baptist churches today. What William G. McCloughlin wrote about revivalism being “the national religion in the United States” in the nineteenth century could doubtless be said of today. Knapp’s adaptation of and expansion upon Finney’s “new measures” had lasting implications on the religious life and practices of Baptists in America.
Pastors need to understand that a change occurred among American Baptists in the nineteenth century, one that continues apace to this day. This change has shaped our intuitions about conversion, membership, baptism, and what it means to practice regenerate church membership. We live in a world infused with revivalistic intuitions and institutional practices that unintentionally undermine what it even means to be a Baptist church. By understanding the historical roots of revivalism, pastors will be better equipped to critically assess practices often taken for granted today.
 “Megachurch Pastor Steven Furtick’s ‘Spontaneous Baptisms’ Not so Spontaneous,” Religion News Service (blog), February 24, 2014, https://religionnews.com/2014/02/24/megachurch-pastor-steven-furticks-spontaneous-baptisms-spontaneous/.
 “Long Hollow Revival Steeped in Prayer Sees 1,000 Baptisms since December | Baptist Press,” https://www.baptistpress.com/, accessed May 6, 2022, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/long-hollow-revival-steeped-in-prayer-sees-1000-baptisms-since-december/.
 “Vision 2025 Amended, Adopted by Messengers | Baptist Press,” https://www.baptistpress.com/, accessed May 6, 2022, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/vision-2025-amended-adopted-by-messengers/.
 While this article covers much of the same material as Iain Murray’s excellent chapter on “The Baptists” in Revival and Revivalism, the primary source documents including Jacob Knapp’s Autobiography and Charles G. Finney’s work Lectures on Revival were each independently read by the author prior to reading Murray’s chapter, with which the author is entirely in agreement.
 Jacob Knapp, Autobiography of Elder Jacob Knapp (Sheldon, 1868), 41.
 Knapp, 41. “I felt that I was entering upon a path that had not been trodden before me.”
 Jacob Knapp, Autobiography of Elder Jacob Knapp (Sheldon, 1868).
 William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 140. Cited in Revival and Revivalism, 312.
 Knapp, xv.
 McLoughlin, 140. Cited in Revival and Revivalism, 312.
 Jacob Knapp, Autobiography of Elder Jacob Knapp (Sheldon, 1868), 28. As R. Jeffery writes, “the term [protracted meeting] is now generally used to designate… continuous exercises of preaching and prayer for several successive weeks, during which time the members of the church are urged to unusual exertions, in order to awaken the interest of the unconverted around them to the concerns of their everlasting well-being” (v). Another contemporary, David Benedict, writes, “At length protracted meetings began to be much talked of far and near, and so many reports were circulated concerning the wonderful effects of them, that by many they were thought to be the very thing for promoting religious revivals… In process of time the Baptists became a good deal engaged in these peculiar gatherings, and many of them seemed much pleased with them. The revival ministers, as they were called, soon became very popular; they were sent for from far and near, and in many cases very large additions were made to our churches under their ministrations. But, in some cases, the old ministers and churches demurred… They were jealous of these wonder-working ministers in this business, and of a new machinery in the work of conversion…. To see converts coming into a church by wholesale was a pleasing idea to many members… But another class of members had fearful forebodings for the future” (David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists(Sheldon, 1860), 202-203).
 Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (London: Thomas Tegg, 1839), 221.
 Finney, 224.
 By “the anxious seat,” Finney referred to “the appointment of some particular seat in the place of meeting, where the anxious may come and be addressed particularly, and be made subjects of prayer, and sometimes conversed with individually” (Finney, 225).
 Knapp, 43. Elsewhere Knapp writes, “After the sermon was finished… the anxious were invited forward…” (66).
 Knapp, 214. Italics mine.
 Knapp, 215.
 Knapp, 215.
 Knapp, 148. Finney called these “anxious meetings” (Finney, 221).
 Knapp, 57.
 Knapp, 221.
 Knapp, 221. In another case he writes, “After I had concluded the preaching service, many of the unconverted, attracted by the voice of prayer, went into the anxious-room. Several of them fell on their knees and cried aloud for mercy. The converts began to plead with the anxious until all in the room were led to surrender their hearts to Christ” (61).
 Knapp, 217.
 Knapp, 217.
 Knapp, 217-218.
 Knapp, 210.
 Knapp, 108.
 Knapp, 108. During another series of meetings in Canton, IL in 1851, where they baptized seventy persons in one week, Knapp writes, “It was our custom to follow close upon the heels of the apostles in the baptizing of converts. When one rose up, rejoicing in the blessed Savior, the church would vote him right in, and we baptized him” (166).
 Knapp, 43.
 Knapp, 108.
 Knapp, 44.
 Knapp, 211.
 Knapp, 208. For a response to arguments of this kind and an assessment of the baptisms in the Book of Acts, see Caleb Morell, “Does the Book of Acts Teach Spontaneous Baptisms?,” 9Marks, accessed January 6, 2022, https://www.9marks.org/article/does-the-book-of-acts-teach-spontaneous-baptisms/
 Knapp, 209.
 Knapp, 210.
 Knapp, 222.
 Knapp, 209.
 Caleb Morell, “Too Young to Dunk? An Examination of Baptists and Baptismal Ages, 1700–1840,” 9Marks, accessed January 5, 2022, https://www.9marks.org/article/too-young-to-dunk-an-examination-of-baptists-and-baptismal-ages-1700-1840/.
 This observation is based on the author’s study of baptismal ages at Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1884-1888.
 Knapp, 213.
 Knapp, 187.
 Knapp, 188.
 McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 66. Cited in Revival and Revivalism, 277.