Watch Night Services: The Anticipation of Freedom
by Tommy Davis (email@example.com)
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 Republican 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 It pertained only to states that had withdrawn from the Union, leaving slavery unaffected in the loyal border states.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.