Watch night -- that was the last day of the year -- was a night when almost everybody in the church had a part. People would come in from late at night, many people who never did come to church. We didn't care if you were a saint or a sinner; you could come in. ... they would have preaching and they would have class meeting, and everybody that could talk, talked: "thank God for this," and "thank God for that." That was a big night. At twelve o'clock, everybody would be down on their knees. And then we got up singing.
~ Susanna Watkins (1905-99), prayer band member quoted in Jonathan David, Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2007), 169.
Ask me what I am doing this New Year's Eve? Or, last year. Ask me what my mom did for New Year's Eve, or what my great-grandparents did generations before. The answer is the same: attend Watchnight Service. As a clergywoman, Watchnight is a favorite worship service of each year. It is a gem, though not an official day on the liturgical calendar.Observed in numerous and varied churches -- many, though not all, are African American. Usually, Watchnight starts between 9 and 10 p.m. and includes prayer, praise, singing, scripture reading and preaching. Some allow for "testimony" time during which people offer public thanks to God for bringing them through the year. The old gospel song, "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder," expresses this testimony. Whether or not one stands to testify, Watchnight is a spiritual hinge between past and future. We gather to thank God for allowing us to have arrived at the end of the year with a "reasonable portion of health and strength," while invoking God's presence in the new and unknown future.
Watchnight is not only a Black Christian tradition, though there's significant Black history among the traditions. It's impossible to point to a singular birthing room for Watchnight services that will happen this weekend. Following are three historical streams that feed current worship services:
European Protestant Tradition
The 550-year-old Moravian Church, founded in Czechoslovakia, is the first community thought to have held Watchnight. Its purpose was to renew one's covenant with God at the turn of the year. The Moravians were enthusiastic international missionaries who spread their spiritual practices around the globe in the 18th century. One person who encountered them was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination. According to Jonathan L. Chism, writing in his article "Watchnight,"Wesley felt believers should have an annual opportunity to renew their covenant with God and reflect on the state of their souls. Therefore, he incorporated Watchnight into his development of Methodist liturgical structures. The first American Watchnight was held somewhere around 1770 at St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Among St. George's membership were two freed slaves named Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who in 1787 lead a walkout of St. George's in response to racial discrimination there. Jones later founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas and Allen founded Mother Bethel Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination. From Moravians to freed slaves, Watchnight took its place on the American religious stage. This weekend, many Moravian communities will hold Watchnight services as they have done for centuries.
This is the most famous historical stream for Watchnight, where enslaved Africans gathered to await the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Eve 1862. Following the Union's defeat of the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation ending the dehumanizing American history of enslavement. While Lincoln's Proclamation was influenced by political, military and geographic strategies, the soon-to-be-free enslaved people saw Emancipation wholly as an act of God resonant with the biblical Exodus.
The tradition goes that these faithful people of African descent gathered, waiting out the night between bondage and freedom in prayer, praise, lament and gratitude to God for their own survival and witness. These spiritual actions of the people and God's actions in the community, not just the individual, are seeds that were planted and bloom yearly in Watchnight services from Harlem to Shaker Heights to Crenshaw.
Though the tradition of Freedom's Eve may be more widely known, another tradition was more influential on Watchnights where I grew up. This tradition also focuses on enslavement, but before Emancipation. The belief was that enslaved people gathered with loved ones during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Watchnight was the final gathering, during which they prayed for God to protect and "watch between them" when they departed. As the story goes, many slave owners settled their debts by the start of the New Year, and selling enslaved humans was a lucrative means of producing revenue. Watchnight, therefore, was an opportunity to step faithfully into the unknown of another year in bondage. The spiritual, "This May Be the Last Time," expresses this poignancy.
In the Gullah Sea Islands, this tradition is still perceptible. I attended Watchnight at Ebenezer AME Church in Charleston, SC, and along with the usual liturgy there was a "watchmen" who called out the time until just before midnight when the whole congregation knelt to pray. In Bolden, Georgia at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, the Watchnight liturgy is followed by a Ring Shout in the church's annex. People from this community have become known as the McIntosh County Shouters and are one of few groups currently performing the Ring Shout, which is an ancient Africanist religious ritual of counterclockwise circular movement, rhythm and singing. Ring Shouts often lasted through the night until daybreak.
When I participate in Watchnight, I stand within these historical traditions. It is a place for my hopes and anxieties about the future, as well as my regrets, gratitude and forgiveness about the past. For me, Watchnight is also a sign of relationship with God who is beyond time and circumstances. This relationship is the legacy that was passed to me and that I aim to pass along to my children when I insist that they attend Watchnight each year. I am excitedly preparing for Saturday night's Watchnight Service with my family because I want them to experience this liturgy in which past and future mingle in the hearts of the people gathered before God "who was, and is, and is to come."