Watch Night Services in the African American Church

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parents and their son praying in church

For as long as I can remember, one of the most important dates and celebrations in which I (and many other African American church-goers and Christians) regularly and routinely participated is December 31 (of every year) in a gathering called Watch Night Service. Beginning between 10:00 and 10:30 pm on the night of December 31, people gather in their churches for the purpose of reflecting over the ups and downs of the past year, giving God thanks and praise for bringing them safely through the year, and shouting the victory by faith for the glories that God will manifest in their lives in the upcoming year.

Within the African American Church context, the observance and celebration of Watch Night Services has a long and illustrious history. This practice of observing Watch Night traces its roots back to “Freedom Eve,” the night preceding the day (January 1, 1863) when the Emancipation Proclamation would begin to be enforced. On that night, black Christians gathered in churches to “watch” and wait for midnight when they would finally be liberated from an ungodly and heinous institution, and set free from slavery forever! For Abraham Lincoln had issued the Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War saying that “upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

From that day to this, the observance of Watch Night Services has continued, and in fact, prospers in African American Churches across the United States of America. This night is a tradition in Black Churches and among Black families where they come together to see the exit of the old year, and the entrance of the new. And it is always in order for the entire church to find itself at the altar, on their knees, and praying as God ushers God’s children into the goodness and the blessings of a brand new year with its new opportunities and new possibilities!

Within the African American Church and church families, the observance of Watch Night is important for variety of reasons. Its historic connection to the passing and enforcing of the Emancipation Proclamation notwithstanding, many African American families take advantage of the Watch Night celebration to teach their children and grandchildren to value the blessings that God has bestowed upon their lives throughout the course of the past year. Parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to know and embrace the fact that all that they are and have is because of the goodness of God, and God’s goodness throughout the year is celebrated and appreciated during the Watch Night Service. But they also want their children to know that the future is in God’s hands. Therefore, it is right and good for one to find oneself in the church (and at the altar) seeking God’s face, God’s blessings, and God’s direction as they move into the future and the opportunities of the New Year.

Although the historical connectedness to the Watch Night of “Freedom’s Eve” has diminished in many African American churches, Watch Night Services are still tremendously important and valuable in the life of the church. Molly Hennesay-Flake, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, shares some very interesting sentiments from one of the major church pastors within the African Methodist Episcopal Church in an article she presented on January 1, 2013. She writes:

“Many don’t know the significance of Watch Night,’” said the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of the 17,000-member church (First AME Church of Los Angeles, California.)

Boyd recalled that some of the first Watch Night services predated the Emancipation Proclamation. John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement, picked up the tradition from Moravian Christians in 1740 as a late-night vigil for the faithful, according to ‘The Story of the Hymns and Tunes’ by Hezekiah Butterworth and Theron Brown, which includes a description of the first service: ‘The people met at half-past eight. The house was filled from end to end, and we concluded the year wrestling with God in prayer.’

The first Methodist Watch Night service in the United States likely was held in 1770 at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, said Jonathan Chism, an African American religion doctoral student at Rice University and associate pastor at St. John’s Downtown, a United Methodist Church in Houston.

But the service took on new significance for blacks on Freedom’s Eve, Boyd said.

‘They prayed that Abraham Lincoln would do what he promised to do. They prayed all night long,’ Boyd said. Today’s concerns are different. Instead of freedom, ‘we pray for black families, for opportunity as well as social and educational assistance,’ he said.”

In the constant struggle for a sense of equality, justice, and freedom within a sometimes oppressive and stifling culture and society, an eternal spirit of optimism and faith in the power of God to change things and make things right drives the hopeful to the church on Watch Night to celebrate, shout, pray, and leave with an expectantly faith that the New Year will ALWAYS be made better by God than the old year. In fact, one of the many practices associated with Watch Night Services is for the parishioners to bring all of the issues of the past year written onto a piece of paper to be thrown into a collective bucket. When the clock strikes midnight signifying the New Year has come, and the prayers at the altar have been uttered, a lit match is thrown into the bucket to burn away the old, and to clear and purify the bucket for the new! This action always arouses shouts of joy, the shedding of tears, and a new excitement for what is coming before us. Such is the spirit of the Watch Night Service in the African American Church experience.

Image attribution: stockbyte / Thinkstock

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Rev. Sinkfield has been blessed by God to minister worldwide through his preaching and teaching gifts. He is sought for sermons, workshops and seminars on the Presiding Elders’ District, Annual Conference and Connectional Levels of the International African Methodist Episcopal Church and beyond. Rev. Sinkfield has travelled extensively and conducted scores of crusades and revivals in churches across the country and internationally--including Seoul, South Korea, the Holy Land of Israel, Kenya, the Maasai Mara, and he conducted a national crusade in Zimbabwe-- where thousands were led to know Christ.

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