Watch Night Service has special meaning for African-American Christians
Dr. Harold Lewis
Vice President of Biblical Diversity
For years, many of us who grew up in the black church have been familiar with Watch Night Services, when persons of African descent gather in churches across the country on New Year’s Eve. The Watch Night worship service usually begins between 7 and 10 p.m. and concludes a little after midnight upon the entrance of the new year.
For many people, the Watch Night Service is the first event before going out to celebrate the new year, and for others, the Watch Night Service is the only event they attend.
Origins of the Watch Night Service
The tradition of the Watch Night Service, also known as “Freedom’s Eve,” can be historically traced back to December 31, 1862. That day, large masses of blacks, along with some white abolitionists, gathered in churches and private homes, anxiously anticipating President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law.
It must also be noted that before that celebratory night of December 31, President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation earlier that fall on September 22, 1862. The initial proclamation stated: “On the first day of January 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The preliminary proclamation would soon become a permanent reality in just a little over 90 days.
On that faithful eve, when the clock struck midnight ringing in the New Year of January 1, 1863, all the slaves being held in the Confederate States were declared free. When the news reached those awaiting in churches and private homes that they were now free, prayers, praises and songs of jubilation filled the air as the once-enslaved people fell to their knees with outstretched hands toward heaven thanking and praising God.
And now, 157 years later, many Christians of African descent will gather in churches on New Year’s Eve to continue the faith tradition of their enslaved forefathers and mothers to celebrate and commemorate that faithful and long-awaited night of December 31, 1862, for the official word of their freedom.
In the spirit of that first Freedom’s Eve, many men, women and children of African descent will kneel, bow their heads, hold hands in sanctuaries and homes across this country and abroad to send up prayers and praises thanking God for the blessings of their past emancipation as well as watching out the old year and welcoming in the new one.
Dr. Harold Lewis, Vice President of Biblical Diversity
Dr. Harold D. Lewis Sr. is Converge’s Vice President of Biblical Diversity. A native of Greenwood, Mississippi, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, a Master of Divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta and a Doctorate of Psychology from the University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He also has been awarded multiple honorary doctorates. Dr. Lewis comes to Converge with over three decades of pastoral and leadership experience as a turnaround church pastor and a transformational coach for clergy and laypersons. His ministerial experience also includes more than 10 years of multicultural and justice responsibilities, which included collaborating with and resourcing Native American, Micronesian, Hispanic, Korean and Haitian ministries, as well as Black Methodists for Church Revival and the Conference Committee on Religion and Race.