Watch Night Service Continues to Inspire Hope for African American Communities

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center - Friday, December 11, 2020

Brian Rodgers, community liaisonOne of my earliest church memories was about a service that seemed to be typical, at least I thought it was typical. There was singing, an offering, prayer, a sermon and a second offering. Exactly what most people would consider typical church services. Except it was late at night, and it wasn’t Sunday.

The service was actually a watch night service, which is a special service that happens once a year, on the last day of the year. Most of my life, I thought it was to “pray in the New Year,” because that’s what I heard one of the deacons say during the service. My experience was typical of watch night services in the late 80s and early 90s, but as time passed, the service evolved.

The last watch night service I attended was in the early 2000s, and it seemed to be more of a night of fellowship than what I experienced as a child. There was food, games and laughter. Yes, there was prayer, but it was far from a typical church service.

Around 11:45 p.m., the entire congregation left the fellowship hall and gathered in the sanctuary. We formed a circle near the pulpit, and one by one, we took turns telling the group what we were most thankful for from the year that was about to expire. We then said what we would improve during the upcoming year. As midnight approached, the pastor led the group in prayer, then we dismissed as the New Year rolled in.

That watch night experience is foreign to some more conservative congregations, but it was a fun night that included some aspects of a traditional watch night service. Reflecting on it now, however, I am left with the question: Does a watch night service like the ones from my childhood still serve a purpose, and does the newer version make the service more relevant in the Black church in 2020?

To answer these questions, it is important to discuss the origins of watch night service. On Dec. 31, 1862, a little-known Christian service, which was started in Europe by an obscure sect called the Moravians, was changed forever and introduced to the world as Watch Night Service. Although the history of this once-a-year event can be traced back to the Moravian church, it wasn’t until the Methodist church adopted it that large numbers began to observe this special day. About four decades after the Moravians began to celebrate this night, Anglican clergyman and founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley brought Watch Night to the colonies with the introduction of Methodism to the Americas.

The Methodist celebration took a different form and was called a covenant renewal service. An informal covenant renewal service was held once a month during the full moon and a formal service was held each year on Dec.31.The members of the congregation would meditate and evaluate their lives with the intent of making sure they were ready for the return of Jesus in the coming year. It was through membership in the Methodist church, the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal church and other branches of Methodism that African Americans were introduced to the idea of watch night service.

At the same time that the African Methodist Episcopal Church was expanding in the northeast, tensions over slavery were growing in the country. By 1861, the country was engulfed in civil war. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, not because he wanted to free the enslaved, but because he wanted to break the will of the South. The order was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. With freedom on the horizon for the enslaved in states that were in open rebellion, word soon began to spread through the slave quarters of plantations in the South. Enslaved African Americans and freedmen throughout the country were filled with the anticipation of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the night of Dec. 31, 1862, African Americans gathered in churches in the northeast as well as the slave quarters of the South. As the New Year approached, they prayed and reflected on the freedom that awaited them in 1863.

African Americans transformed a 130-year-old religious service into a spiritual and cultural event that would last well into the 21st century. Although the original service has changed from what the Moravians envisioned, modern watch night services still provide an opportunity for reflection on the year that passed and a time for planning for the upcoming year. Today, the tradition of watch night service illustrates the twin themes of survival and hope that is at the heart of the African American story.

For more information about African American history in Arkansas, contact Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at 501-683-3593.

Sources for this story by Brian Rodgers are:

Michael Cord, “Four things you didn’t know about Watch Night, The Philadelphia Tribune, December 28, 2018.

“On the tradition of Watch Night,” African American Civil War Museum. Accessed 12/1/2020.

Mitch Kachun. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1805-1915. University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.

Juan Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Carol B. Duncan, Stephen g. Ray, Jr., and Nancy Lynne Westfield. Black Church Studies: An Introduction. Abingdon Press, 2007.




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