Watch Night Services: The Anticipation of Freedom

24 Dec

by Tommy Davis (

Traditional historians agree that the predominantly black church in America should remind itself of the horrors of slavery.  The atrocities experienced at the hands of Southern Democrats instigated a spiritual revolution among black Christians and brought about a passionate black church which recognized that God cared for them.

Contemporaries speculate why many black American Christians annually observe what is termed “Watch Night” services, a yearly religious observation to bring in the New Year.  The Watch Night tradition dates back to 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that took effect on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of the bloody civil war. The proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The Emancipation Proclamation was zealously anticipated. Historians pointed out that many black Americans gathered in groups around clocks or watches eagerly awaiting the arrival of midnight on December 31, 1862 because the Proclamation was to take effect on the first moment of January 1, 1863.[i]

Despite its extensive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was restricted in many ways. It pertained only to states that had withdrawn from the Union, leaving slavery unaffected in the loyal border states. It also expressly relieved parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not instantaneously free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the atmosphere of the war.  The slaves now recognized that they had no obligation to obey slaveholders.  Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who escaped slavery in Maryland, proclaimed:

“About twelve o’clock, seeing there was no disposition to retire from the hall, which must be vacated, my friend Grimes…rose and moved that the meeting adjourn to the Twelfth Baptist Church, of which he was pastor, and soon the church was packed from doors to pulpit, and this meeting did not break up till near the dawn of day.  It was one of the most affecting and thrilling occasions I ever witnessed, and a worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages.”[ii]

Mr. Douglass and others had gathered at the Twelfth Baptist Church to continue enjoying the occasion of the new executive order.

After January 1, 1863, every progress of federal troops expanded the domain of liberty. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators.

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom.  As Frederick Douglass confirmed during the Watch Night service: “There was evidently no disposition on the part of this meeting to criticize the proclamation; nor was there with any one at first.  At the moment, we saw only its anti-slavery side.”[iii]   It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.  Again, Douglass noted that the Proclamation was “confined within certain geographical and military lines.”[iv]    As a signpost along the road to slavery’s final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.   It was the forerunner of the Republicans’ victory in passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865—banning slavery in ALL America.

Thus, during Watch Night, black Americans should be reminded of this glorious event as observed by the pioneers of freedom from both corporal and spiritual bondage.  The Lord saw fit to answer the prayers of millions of slaves and those free persons who valued freedom for every one of their fellow men.

[i] David Barton, American History In Black & White (Aledo: Wallbuilders, 2004), 28

[ii] Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 792

[iii] Ibid, p. 792

[iv] Ibid, p. 792



9 responses to “Watch Night Services: The Anticipation of Freedom

  1. Rich tyson

    December 25, 2010 at 6:20 am

    Thank you for passing along Tommy! Insightful as always and I always enjoy learning something new.

  2. Bobbi Biggs

    December 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    I Wish I Had Known THIS Before. Although I Am White … I Would Have “Remembered & Honored” THIS At Every New Years (Eve) During Our “Watch Services” At The Churchs I Have Attended Thru The Years AND Educated Others, Also. It Brings Tears To My Eyes…..

  3. BASP

    December 30, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Mr. Davis,

    It is amazing how the internet can provide ninformation that is so irrelevant to the African American community, cultural and heritage. You can technically call it “brainwashing”.

    As a person who has earned a master degree in African American Studies (AAS) and has extensively studied our African American history at home and abroad for the past 35 years, it is sad to see that our history is being corrupted for self centered reasons by our own fellow brothers and sisters. This includes misinformation that is being being posted on the web and rewritten by certain persons of color.

    The true history of watch night was actually started by by a Christian group called the Moravians in 1733. This was a 129 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Watch night is celebrated by many countries today with the same Christain emphasis that John Wesley adopted in 1770 at his church in Philadelphia.

    I respect everyone’s political affiliation but you need to get your facts straight…

    Check out for more on this subject matter.


    Master of Education

    • Rev. Tommy Davis, DDCS

      December 31, 2010 at 12:31 am

      BASP, it would be very helpful to do your research rather than rely on snopes who often misrepresent the facts. If it was up to SNOPES, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Apparently, your study of African American history stems from liberal revisionists who would have you believe that black people are better off Democrat.
      Truth would have it that the Moravians were a Protestant sect that flourished during the Protestant Reformation in Europe. After experiencing a revival under a fellow named Christian David, they founded a small refuge for fleeing Protestants in 1722 that was called the Lord’s Watch. This had nothing to do with “Watch Night” services.
      In addition, since it was the Methodists and Baptists who preached to the slaves, they did glean from the Moravians some traditional religious convictions since they all were persecuted by the Catholics and were the large-scale missionary force in history.
      I think it is YOU who must get your facts straight rather than accept revisionist history written by Democrats who has done a pretty good job at hiding their racist history.

      • BASP

        December 31, 2010 at 5:24 am

        Mr. Davis,

        It is so pitiful to read such articles as these that are written by you a man of so called “high intergrity”. Why do you consider yourself a black republican but insist on sending black democrats your articles which are quoted from other sources and not information that you personally acquired or witness?

        Is is for argument sake? I refuse to be converted because I appreciate my political status. I also do a lot of internet and personal research about our african American history. I have earned my stripes and would never push my personal preferences on anyone.

        Everyone is entitled to their own opinions…sane or insane.

        I will be attending my “watch night” service tonight to celebrate the coming of the new year. What will you be doing?

        As for the religious communities in my city, I added the following info:

        Many Pentacostal. Baptist, Protestant and Methodist churches, and especially those consisting of the “African American community, have a tradition of New Year’s Eve known as “Watch Night”.

        Many Reformed congregations also have New Year’s Eve worship services. In those churches observing Watch Night, the faithful congregate in such services commencing New Year’s Eve night and continuing past midnight into the new year. In each of these communities, New Year’s Eve services are a time for giving thanks for the blessings of the outgoing year and praying for divine favor during the upcoming year.

        Though held by some to have begun in the African American community, watch night can actually be traced back to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley learned the custom of Watchnight from the Moravian Brethren who came to England in the 1730s.Moravian Congregations still observe the Watchnight Service on New year’s Eve. Watch Night took on “special significance” to African Americans on New Year’s Eve 1862, however, as slaves anticipated the arrival of January 1, 1863, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

        I have my facts straight… and have been a part of this service since being conceived in my mother’s womb. It started with my great grandmother who was born into slavery and passed down through the generations. It is very traditional in my family and will continue to have a religious meaning.

        A faithful “Watch Night” participant and Democrat

  4. Rev. Tommy Davis, DDCS

    December 31, 2010 at 5:52 am

    The African-American should evaluate their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Perhaps my fellow Americans should wonder why the first black politicians after the Civil War were all REPUBLICAN.

    It was the Republican Party that abolished slavery, established voting rights for blacks, integrated our public schools, and appointed more QUALIFIED blacks to positions of authority. This is in contrast to the Democratic Party that promoted slavery, lynched blacks by strengthening the Ku Klux Klan, persecuted blacks during the Civil Rights movement, and currently believe blacks need government programs to succeed. The Democratic Party also currently block low income black children from attending better schools by NOT allowing school choice through the voucher program.

  5. Rev. Tommy Davis, DDCS

    December 31, 2010 at 6:03 am

    The First African-American Senator was a Republican. Hiram Rhodes Revels (September 27, 1827 – January 16, 1901) was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Since he preceded any African American in the House, he was the first African American in the U.S. Congress as well. As a Republican, he represented Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during Reconstruction. As of 2009, Revels is one of only six African Americans ever to have served in the United States Senate.
    *Republicans Passed the 14th Amendment
    The 14th Amendment guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws to all citizens. It enshrines in the Constitution provisions of the GOP’s 1866 Civil Rights Act. The original purpose of the 14th Amendment was to defend African-Americans from their Democrat oppressors in the post-Civil War South.
    *Republicans Passed the 15th Amendment
    In 1869, the Republican-controlled 40th Congress passed the 15th Amendment, extending to African-Americans the right to vote. Nearly all Republicans in Congress voted in favor, though a few abstained, saying it did not go far enough. Nearly all Democrats in Congress voted against the 15th Amendment.

    BASP, Maybe your study of black history didn’t go far enough. Or maybe the revivionists taught you that the old Republicans are the new Democrats.

  6. Rev. Tommy Davis, DDCS

    December 31, 2010 at 2:33 pm

  7. Chaplain Ayesha Kreutz

    December 9, 2011 at 3:11 am

    Love it…. I wish more understood the signifigance of “New years” and the New years eve service…. ever since I started learning real history like this things take on such new and fresh and wonderf meaning… keep getting the word out my friend. Great Post


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