Watch Night of Freedom
The Watch Night, or Covenant Renewal Service, has been a part of Methodism since John Wesley first used it in 1755. Wesley found it meaningful and "a time of remarkable blessing." He made frequent use of it when visiting the early Methodist Societies. The Watch Night service is today most often held on New Year's Eve, sometimes concluding at midnight, or on New Year's Day. The remembrance of the old year, its accomplishments and its failures, plus the anticipation of a new year with its promise and hope, can lend a serious quality to the service. The people should be prepared for this service through some study and prayer, and brought to an appreciation of what it means to enter into a covenant. The service includes prayers, Scripture, hymns, the Covenant Prayer (UM Hymnal, no. 607), and may also include Holy Communion. The entire service is included in The Book of Worship, no. 288.
Watch Night services have long been an important part of African American worship. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States, it was to become law on January 1, 1863. On December 31, 1862, the night before it was to become law, African Americans gathered together in their churches and homes all over the USA, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.
What a night that must have been! They and their ancestors had been captured in Africa, kidnapped, tied, bound, and locked in chains. Whole families, even villages, disappeared. Families were separated, never to see each other or their homes again. They were taken to different parts of the world, but most to the Americas, shackled and packed into the holds of slave ships. Upon arrival they were sold into slavery that meant a lifetime of hardship, suffering, forced labor, and deprivation of all human rights. Enduring such conditions, what must that New Year's Eve Watch Night of 1862 been like? What did they do? Did some of them gather in small groups and whisper their prayers and songs in hushed voices, fearing their masters might descend at any moment? After all, President Lincoln's declaring their freedom didn't make it so in the eyes of their owners. And the Civil War would drag on for another three years. What songs did they sing? How did they pray? Did they dance, sing, shout, and clap, or was it a time of quiet, uncertain wondering what their future held?
That Watch Night of 1862 came to be known as "Freedom's Eve." When midnight and the New Year arrived, they celebrated with prayers, shouts, singing, and great thanksgiving to God. Today, more than 150 years after that first "Freedom's Eve" Watch Night, African Americans continue to gather in worship, prayer, and thanksgiving. (See http://www.bodo.com/hotlink/watchnight.htm for more). Freedom and liberation would be entirely appropriate themes to be included in any New Year's Eve Watch Night service or the first Sunday worship service of the new year.