For black churches, this Watch Night has special meaning

HOUSTON — On Freedom’s Eve, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, worshipers gathered in black churches to pray, give thanks and wait for the stroke of midnight, the stirring moment when slaves would officially, and finally, be “forever free.”

Now, on the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, the tradition of what became known as Watch Night continues. In Houston, a megachurch observed the night with music, dance and prayer. In Washington, the National Archives put the original document on display. And in Los Angeles, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church marked the day as well, as it has since its founding 140 years ago.

“It’s a tradition with my mother and father. We’d always go back to church to see the New Year come in. We’re always on our knees when the clock strikes 12,” said Enoila Woodard, 71.

Woodard had traveled from Fresno, Texas, to Houston for a Watch Night service at Windsor Village United Methodist Church. She brought along four great-grandchildren, ages 11, 10, 9 and 7.

Bertha Greene, 62, of nearby Missouri City, Texas, grew up attending Watch Night services in Mississippi. “We always did it — we always brought in the New Year at church,” said Greene, joined by her daughter and 11-year-old grandson. “We need to be thankful for what we have, for the year. I really came to show the children what it’s about.”


But perceptions of Watch Night have changed through the years.

“There are a lot of meanings behind it,” said Phillip McKnight, 54, facilities director at Windsor Village. “Some say it started with the Emancipation Proclamation, but it goes back further than that. It’s a thanking for another year — I want to thank God for another year.”

Ray Bady, 42, director of the youth ministry at the 16,000-member church headed by Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, agreed that Watch Night had changed over time and that some people may have lost sight of its origins.

“People have made it throughout the years what they want it to be. I think the history needs to be retold, so you know the meaning behind what you’re doing,” he said.

Lincoln issued the proclamation during the middle 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.”

In recent years, Watch Night has been adopted by multicultural congregations, including Koreans, for whom the service is more about gathering to celebrate the New Year. First Christian Church of North Hollywood hosted a late-night service in Korean, Spanish and English followed by a good luck New Year’s meal of tamales, black beans and dukguk soup, the Rev. Louise Sloan Goben said.

But for many black Americans, the Watch Night tradition has taken on added meaning this year with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In Los Angeles at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, worshipers organized a play to show how slaves originally prepared for Freedom’s Eve, with the church choir appearing in period dress and an actor playing Lincoln — all streamed live on the church website. A similar reenactment was planned outside the church at noon on Tuesday, also broadcast on the website,

“Many don’t know the significance of Watch Night,” said the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of the 17,000-member church.

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.

Special Watch Night celebrations were also planned Monday at the National Archives, where the Emancipation Proclamation was on display until 1 a.m. Tuesday, with a choir singing and an actress dressed as Harriet Tubman ringing a bell at midnight.

Chism said this years’ Watch Night had particular significance not only because of the 150th anniversary, but also because it comes just before President Obama’s second inauguration.

“A lot of African Americans appreciate the election of an African American president, given the struggle of African Americans against slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality and a number of injustices. It’s part of the reason we celebrate,” he said

Chism planned to celebrate Watch Night with his wife and 10-week-old son Jonathan Jr. at St. John’s, a mostly black church of more than 9,000 where services ended at midnight.

In the future, Chism said, he hopes to incorporate more on the history of emancipation in Watch Night services — “at least some part of the service where congregants reflect on Freedom’s Eve and what it meant to those freed slaves. Because I think we do take it for granted. What if those slaves had not been freed? What if people had not struggled to do away with slavery?”