Happy New Year! Do You Know the History of Watch Night service?

At a recent community event, an elder taught me the history behind “watch night services.” So much of what we do culturally as African Americans has a poignant historical significance. We must share the history of our enslavement, struggles, culture and traditions with our children, grandchildren and the larger community. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many “lost” young black people, if we inculcated African American history, culture and traditions into their marrow.

Despite centuries of revile and persecution, Jews have survived as a people, religion, culture, and nation, not just because they are God’s “chosen people,” but because every observation and celebration is a transmission of their history. I would daresay that African Americans know more about Jewish historiography and culture than about their people. Like you, in 2011, I resolve to follow the lead of that community elder by sharing the facts behind Watch Night and other black traditions.

Reprinted below is an excerpt of an article originally written by Charyn D. Sutton for her Watch Night© presentations and published by The Positive Community in 2004. For more information, please contact Ms. Sutton at charynsutton@aol.com.

“Watch Night Services,” the gathering of the faithful in church on New Year’s Eve was a fairly standard Christian religious service. There’s a history of Watch Night in the Methodist tradition. However, New Year’s Eve services are particularly important in African-American congregations.

On December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve,” Americans of African descent came together in churches, gathering places and private homes awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and according to Lincoln’s promise, all slaves in the Confederate States were legally free. People remained in churches and other gathering places, eagerly awaiting word that Emancipation had been declared. When the actual news of freedom was received later that day, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God.

But even before 1862 and the possibility of a Presidential Emancipation, African people had gathered on New Year’s Eve on plantations across the south. Many slave owners tallied up their business accounts on the first day of each new year. Human property was sold along with land and furnishings to satisfy debts. Families and friends were separated. Often they never saw each other again in this earthly world. Thus coming together on December 31 might be the last time for enslaved and free Africans to be together with loved ones.

So, Black folks in North America have gathered annually on New Year’s Eve since the earliest days, praising God for bringing us safely through another year and praying for the future. Certainly, those traditional gatherings were made more poignant by the events of 1863 which brought freedom to the slaves and the Year of Jubilee. Many generations have passed since and most of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night. Yet our traditions and our faith still bring us together at the end of every year to celebrate once again “how we got over.”  — Charyn D. Sutton © 2004.

About SquarePegDem

A former state legislator turned NY Post editorial board member, thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on Al Jazeera America Tonight, NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email FOMB08@GMAIL.COM.
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15 Responses to Happy New Year! Do You Know the History of Watch Night service?

  1. John M. Lemon says:

    Hi Mike, I learn something new today. Keep up the good work. John L.


  2. Pingback: HAPPY NEW YEAR — ALL THE BEST IN 2012 | MichaelBenjamin2012's Blog

  3. Jeff Wallace says:



  4. Greetings Michael,
    This was very informative, and I am embarrassed to say I have not been taught such an important piece of historical information. Thinking on both reasons, at least in 12/31/1862 they chose to get together, and the years before that, it was not of their choosing. Thanks for such a great post.


    • That’s why I reprint it every year.


      • kirkland burke says:

        Watch Night Service” information going around the internet regarding the “Black Church” isn’t true. Watch night service dates back to the early 1700s in Europe.

        There was no CNN, Chicago Daily Defender, FOX News, or Jet Magazine in 1862 to have informed slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation. Even slave owners would not necessarily have been aware of a Presidential Proclamation becoming effective on January 01, of the following year it is passed or “proclaimed” in this case.

        It is also unlikely with war going on that slaves, for any reason, would be allowed to congregate in large numbers at night. There is no history, oral or in writing regarding this alleged history of the “watch service” that I have found. It only started to circulate on the internet around 2001.

        Slaves would not have universally know about “freedom” from their owners or their families. Most historical accounts of knowledge of freedom came to the slaves as the Union Army advanced into the states in rebellion. That is why the slaves in parts of Texas didn’t know they were free until the middle of June 1964. By December 1862 the Union Army had fought mostly in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Northern Tennessee. By January 01, 1863, the Union Army had come nowhere near advancing into the “deep South”. So how could slaves have know about the Proclamation?

        Kirkland Burke

        Watch Night began with the Moravians, a small Christian denomination whose roots lie in what is the present-day Czech Republic. The first such service is believed to
        have been held in 1733 on the estates of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Hernhut, Germany.

        John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, picked it up from the Moravians, incorporating a Watch Night vigil into the practices of his denomination. Methodist Watch Nights were held once a month and on full moons, with the first such service in the United States taking place in 1770 at Old
        St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. These services survive to the present day in that denomination’s worship manuals as “Covenant Renewal Services.”

        As to what was being “watched over” in those earlier services, it was one’s covenant with God. These gatherings were a time for congregants to meditate on their state of grace — were they spiritually ready to meet their maker if the call were suddenly to come? As the 13th chapter of Mark instructs, the faithful need to be ever vigilant, because the hour of the Lord’s coming is not known. (Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh.)


  5. Angela says:

    Attended a panel discussion on the history of watch night service at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis this month. Was not aware of the historical relevance as it applies to the Emancipation Proclamation and the pre-emancipation watch night service gatherings. I was raised in church and we just always attended watch night service as it pertains to summizing the old year and looking to the new year with improvement. I’ve been researching for more info since the panel discussion to share with others. Thanks!!!


  6. kirkland burke says:

    Can you please send me an updated email address for Ms. Sutton so I can inform her of this internet myth.


  7. Sondra Tucker says:

    Thank you for history that I have learned as a little girl. I will share with other to enrich them of our heritage. Thank you for your time in reprinting and letting the world know of such history!!!


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