On New Year’s Eve in 1862, Black communities in America came together in churches and private homes to wait for the moment that the Emancipation Proclamation would become law. At the stroke of midnight on Freedom’s Eve, all the slaves in the Confederate States became legally free. Frederick Douglass wrote that at the stroke of midnight, “joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to sobs and tears.”
The Watch Night (or Watchnight) service was originated by the Moravians in Germany and was adopted by John Wesley, founder of the United Methodist Church, as an annual renewal of a Christian’s commitment to God. The first Watch Night service in America took place at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, where Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, attended.
While Watch Night services were celebrated in both white and Black churches before Emancipation, the Watch Night service took on a special significance to Black communities after Freedom’s Eve in 1862, when slaves were legally freed. This new celebration of Watch Night became a tradition in many Black churches, including the now-historic Black communions of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches.
The Watch Night service usually begins between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., ending at midnight when the New Year begins. Traditionally, five minutes before midnight, everyone kneels and prays from the old year into the new year. In an article on Watch Night in The African American Lectionary (online), doctoral student Jonathan Langston Chism writes that some services fully honor the Freedom’s Eve tradition during Watch Night, while other services “implicitly reflect the spirit of Freedom’s Eve celebrations by bringing in the New Year with jubilation and praise, praying, shouting, and thanking God for allowing them to live and survive another year as they anticipate the fulfillment of their hopes and God’s promises in the New Year.”
Rev. Robina Winbush, President of Churches Uniting in Christ, shared her memories of Watch Night services, saying, “Watchnight service has always been an important part of my familial, communal, and congregational liturgical life. My favorite memories of Watchnight service were from childhood. Even before we would go out and celebrate with friends, we would always go to church, listen to and share testimonies of God’s blessings in our lives over the past year and celebrate God’s faithfulness in our individual and collective lives. About 15 minutes before midnight, we would gather on our knees (or sometimes in a circle), the lights would dim, and we would begin to pray. About 5 minutes before midnight, someone would ask the question, ‘Watchman, watchman, what is the hour?’ A response would come from the back of the sanctuary in a booming voice, ‘It’s 5 minutes to twelve and all is well.’ This would continue until it reached midnight and the lights in the sanctuary would come on and we would celebrate entering a new year. Later when I learned the history of Watchnight service in the African American church, I appreciated the ritual even more.”
In an article on the Watch Night service, Dr. Calvin H. Snydor III (AME) said, “Watch Meeting Night Service is a tradition that I hope will continue because we have a lot for which to be thankful. All of us have a testimony to give, a song to sing and a prayer to be prayed. In the black community, the Watch Meeting Night began with us, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and with the Right Reverend Richard Allen, the first consecrated and elected bishop.”
African American Registry - http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/first-watch-night-service-occurs
African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum - http://www.afroamcivilwar.org/component/content/article/4-upcoming-events/190-watch-night.html
The United Methodist Church - http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/watch-night-service
Dr. Calvin H. Snydor III, 20th editor of The Christian Recorder - http://www.metropolitanamec.org/watch-meeting-night-services.asp
The African American Lectionary - http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupCulturalAid.asp?LRID=184
Heard and Moseley.
Waiting for the hour [Emancipation], December 31, 1862.
Carte de visite.
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6160 (4-21a)