“Watch Night” -History, Tradition, and Facts

Watch Night, also called Freedom’s Eve, in many African American churches; was a Christian service held on New Year’s Eve with a celebration and remembrance of the Emancipation Proclamation ( 1863) that freed slaves during the American Civil War in the Confederate states.

The Black abolitionist journalist William Cooper Nell described New Year’s Day, January 1 in black history, to be widely known as “Hiring Day” or Heartbreak Day.”On this day, enslaved people spent New Year’s Eve waiting, wondering if their owners were going to rent them out to someone else, which would include the possibility of splitting up their families. Renting out of slaves was a profitable practice for white slave owners and hires, and it was a relatively common practice in the antebellum South.

Significance of the “Watch Night”

During the Civil War, exactly 159 years ago, on December 31, 1862, at around 7 p.m., enslaved Black men, women, and children created history. It would later be called “Watch Night” or “Freedom Eve,” our ancestor’s reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s anticipated January 1, 1863, so-called Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln subsequently issued the Emancipation Proclamation itself on January 1, 1863. While that proclamation did not end slavery the moment it was published, it did at least proclaim some slaves free.

According to tradition, slaves in the Confederate states gathered in churches and private homes on New Year’s Eve night before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was expected to go into effect. That document freed the slaves. Once hearing the news, many started praying, shouting, and singing of praise, and worship began with those who believed Moses would come to set the captives free. For black congregations, participants show up to get rid of the baggage from the year ending while celebrating. There were prayers, shouts, and joyful songs as people fell to their knees and thanked God. Those gatherings were a time for congregants to meditate on whether they were spiritually ready to meet God. 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.

Yet as strongly as Watch Night is to the black community, its observance did not originate with the black community, nor did it begin on December 31, 1862, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

Watch Night was started by the Moravians. 

Watch Night at Church
Source: University of Virginia. (1998). American slave narratives: An online anthology. Retrieved July 14, 2004, from https://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/JACOBS/hj-live2.htm.

The original Watch Night was created in 1733 by the Moravians, the Moravians, a small Christian denomination whose roots lie in the present-day Czech Republic. They held their first Watch Night service at Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf’s palace in nearby Hernhut, Germany.

John Wesley, Founder of the Methodist movement, picked up the tradition from the Moravians. Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, picked up the Moravians’ tradition, incorporating a Watch Night vigil into his denomination practices beginning in 1740. However, the first such service in the United States was reportedly taking place in 1770 at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. 

Still, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion firmly on the Union side. Some 186,000 black soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.”

Watch Night is of particular significance, not only in recognizing its historical importance but also in celebrating the end of a challenging year and the hope and promise of a new year.


Work Cited

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Marital Relationships …. https://thepbsblog.com/2020/01/24/black-history-fun-fact-friday-marital-relationships-during-slavery/

The Dark History of New Year’s Day in American Slavery | Time. https://time.com/5750833/new-years-day-slavery-history/

The Advocate of Truth. https://www.churchofgod-7thday.org/Publications/adDec19.pdf

Watch Night Service held on New Year’s Eve. https://www.wtoc.com/2020/01/01/watch-night-service-held-new-years-eve/

Rev-elution: The lost meaning of Watch Night Services …. https://rev-elution.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-lost-meaning-of-watch-night.html

The Origins of ‘Watch Night’ – Snopes.com. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/watch-night/

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