A History of The Watch Night Service

A History of The Watch Night Service


A Blog by Rev. Cleo Graham

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.  ~John 8:36

On that first Freedom’s Eve, December 31, 1862, African American slaves in the south adapted an African custom which dates back to 1742, the Watch Night Service. They gathered in their churches and homes and waited, watched and prayed for freedom. They stayed awake from dusk to dawn, they tarried, prayed lamentations, they desperately watched and waited for the call to freedom. They probably sang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veiJLhXdwn8 Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom! Oh, freedom over me! And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free.

Imagine their excitement on the following day, January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that all slaves in the confederate states were declared legally free. Upon hearing this news, many of the newly freed men, women and children fell to their knees in prayer, jumped for joy, and shouted words of praise that night.

But, the Emancipation Proclamation did not grant freedom for all slaves. Two years later, the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865 abolished slavery throughout the United States of America. They were legally free from the bonds of slavery.

The Watch Night Service and celebration on New Year's Eve continued as a tradition in many African American churches throughout America. Many gospel songs sung today were birthed out of the bondage to freedom experience.

The Watch Night Service is historically, theologically, and culturally rooted in our Christian heritage. It is historically memorable for our country and significantly holy for those who recognize this freedom as a victory won through the grace of God. We celebrate our nation’s birth, our nation’s bounty our nation’s conquests and religious freedom. Celebrating freedom for all people honors the depth and meaning of the birth of the Christ child, the resurrection of the Christ Savior, the promises of Christ as we wait and watch for his return. The Gospel of John reminds us, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Some Christians celebrate the Watch Night Service while others may simply acknowledge it as a meaningful end of the year time for prayer, praise and renewal. Watch Night Services intersect Christmas and Epiphany where the divine power of God is often manifested.

The Watch Night Service has theological significance. The biblical bases for the Watch Night Service may be found in the Gospel of Matthew 26:38-42. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus repeatedly admonished his disciples to “watch and pray” while he went nearby to pray a lament to God. Each time Jesus said to his disciples, “watch and pray,” he returned to find they had fallen asleep. Christ’s word tells us to watch and pray.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, Apostle Paul reminds us to wait and “pray without ceasing, …for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Christ shows us how to pray, to endure, and to wait on God to deliver us. African American slaves watched, prayed and waited for God to break through the strongholds and answer their prayers for freedom. These slaves labored under deplorable conditions and yearned for freedom, justice and equality year after year. They were encouraged by what Jesus endured and they had faith in God who encouraged them to wait, “watch and pray.”

What does our faith tradition tell us about the Watch Night Service? The United Church of Christ’s foundation and beliefs are an expression of oneness in Christ. The UCC prides itself in pursuing freedom, justice, and equality for all and we celebrate these critical milestones of our faith. The annual Watch Night Worship Service observes these and other tenets through a covenantal response to the grace of God in Christ. It is expressed openly, and collectively as part of the liturgy through prayer, song, and litany.

What can church leadership do to promote the Watch Night Service in our churches? A Watch Night Service can be found as an annual worship service in the UCC Book of Worship which can be found  online. It should be included in our church’s annual liturgical calendar as Watch Night Service has liturgical appeal across all ethnic lines.

The Watch Night Service is not only about freedom. It is evangelically significant as a witness and support of God’s victory over injustice. It connects us with God and acknowledges the value of liberty for all. Unsung heroes and unnamed saints are recognized for their commitment to righteousness, justice, equality and peace.

When I think about Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., abolitionists and freedom fighters who died for the cause of freedom and justice for all, I am inspired to keep their memory alive. The Watch Night Service is also a time to remember those saints who are alive among us.

Watch Night is a time when we wait, watch and celebrate God and the many ways God sets us free as people who appreciate God’s blessings now and in the coming year.

We can enrich our Christmas Season through recognizing and celebrating the Watch Night Service. It is a bridge between Christmas and New Year. It reminds us that God heard their prayers, hears our prayers, and answers the prayers of the faithful.

There are many ways that we can celebrate the Watch Night Service. Check www.ucc.org for a listing of Watch Night Services including a virtual Watch Night Service Thursday, December 31st 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. watch online at Trinity United Church of Christ www.trinitychicago.org.

Wherever you are, let us gather in spirit and prayerfully embrace freedom for all.

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