Black History: Special Delivery!!
In the Christian community, “Watch Night” refers to worship services held on New Year’s Eve. Watch Night services have been celebrated since the 1700’s. Watch Night took on a special meaning, when on December 31, 1862, also known as, “Freedom’s Eve”, slaves were eagerly awaiting the Emancipation Proclamation which would go into effect on January 1, 1863. Contrary to popular belief, the first Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves. The first proclamation was issued on September 22nd and warned the southern “states in rebellion” that slaves would be freed if they continued to defy the Union. On January 1, 1863 the proclamation went into effect. But it only freed slaves in the southern confederate states. It was war tactic designed to weaken the confederate army. It was actually the 13th amendment of 1865 that finally freed all slaves.
Anyway, back to Watch Night!! It actually was originated by the Moravians in 1733 in Germany. The Moravians were a small Christian denomination near what is currently the Czech Republic. The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, adopted the practice from the Moravians and began incorporating Watch Night services into the Methodist tradition. The first Watch night service was held in the U.S. in 1770 in Philadelphia. At that time, the services were held once a month on the full moons. Today the services are referred to as “Covenant Renewal Services” in Methodist worship manuals. At that time, congregants weren’t waiting and watching for the New Year. They used the time to reflect on their spiritual readiness to meet God if they died.
“Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” Matthew 25:13 KJV
Clearly Watch Night took on a new significance for African Americans and those who stood against the cause of slavery with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Watch Night tradition continues to be celebrated today with many Christians of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds.