The Meaning of Watch Night

A late-night tradition in many African American churches celebrates New Year’s Eve—and the end of slavery—with praise, fellowship, and hope for the future.

Pastor Agnes Lover remembers the colors and the motions of scarves placed in the pews of Atlanta's Turner Chapel AME Church, the flashes of orange, red, and gold that sashayed through the air as congregants set them in motion.

She recalls a vibrancy in the Watch Night services she experienced early in her ministry, the inky darkness of the night as cars turned their headlights on the church's parking lot, the pulsing movement as the walls vibrated with erupted tension and ebullient praise. Women and men proclaimed, sang, and shouted captivating and heart-spun testimonies—reflections of joy, adversity, and loss—as the clock approached midnight on the eve of the New Year.

"It was electric," says Lover, who now leads Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "The Spirit was ever so present."

The origins of the celebration date back to December 31, 1862, when free and formerly enslaved African Americans across Boston and other cities throughout the North gathered at churches and homes in solidarity with those held in bondage in the South as they awaited news of freedom. President Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation into effect on January 1, 1863, marking the beginning of the end of more than two centuries of American slavery.

As time has moved further away from the Civil War, the events that took place on Freedom's Eve 1862 have lost their former centrality to this annual African American Christian tradition in many churches.

In the years immediately following emancipation, formerly enslaved African Americans gathered at churches on the eve of the New Year, evoking the cruel trials of slavery and the sweet respite of freedom as they worshipped together in praise and song. When those who had endured slavery passed on, their children carried their stories.

As time went by, many churches began to incorporate a call-and-response prayer to conclude the service. When the clock approached the midnight hour, congregants implored their minister to mark the time, repeating the call: "Watchman, watchman, please tell me the hour?" To which the minister responded: "It's two minutes to midnight; it's one minute before the New Year..." Then the clock struck 12, and the minister finally proclaimed: "It is now midnight—freedom has come."

"The meaning is still relevant, but it has evolved," Lover says. "Now, more or less, people are anticipating the New Year—out with the old, in with the new—and reflecting on the past year. As a pastor, I try to stress how important our faith is to sustain us, because that's what I think Watch Night really means when I consider its heritage as it relates to the African American community."

Pastor Agnes Lover
Pastor Agnes Lover of Montgomery’s Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. Robbie Caponetto

Lover, who was raised in Alabama, doesn't recall understanding its significance until high school, when she received an award from a local association tasked with preserving the history of emancipation in Montgomery, a city covered with historical emblems.

Now, the nighttime church celebrations that once yawned past midnight often begin at 7 p.m. and end by 10 p.m. Some churches have combined services, while others don't observe Watch Night at all. Yet in the past two years of ongoing political turmoil, disease, and death that have had a marked effect on African American communities across the country, the significance found in the transformative origins of Freedom's Eve—and the testimonial tradition of contemporary church services praising God for carrying one through the trials and tribulations—speak to an urgent need to reconnect the service's past with the present.

"I strongly feel that if you're not aware of your history, certain things are doomed to repeat themselves," says Lover. "Watch Night is still vitally important for us to come together as a community to watch, to pray, and to really engage in a spiritual way against everything that polarizes our nation."

Richard Bailey

African Americans and all Americans have to realize there's nothing free about freedom.

—Richard Bailey

COVID-19's outsize impact on African Americans since the pandemic began in early 2020 is still being felt. A disproportionate number of the more than 700,000 lives lost in the U.S. to the virus are African American men and women, who are hospitalized at almost three times the rate of White Americans and remain twice as likely to die from the illness, according to the CDC. In July, the unemployment rate for African Americans remained about double that of their White counterparts, according to a Congressional Research Service report released the following month. And Census Bureau data from early September revealed that about 15% of Black adults reported that their households had lacked an adequate food supply within the seven days that preceded the survey.

Maybe Black Americans are no longer fighting to free themselves from the chains of slavery, but real threats to their rights as full democratic citizens abound. The 2020 killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black victims and the surge of protests that followed cast racial justice again in the spotlight with a unified fervor that many Americans had never before witnessed.

Richard Bailey
Richard Bailey Director of the Emancipation Association of Montgomery. Robbie Caponetto

In this light, Freedom's Eve serves as a reminder of how tenuous freedom—the power to speak or act without restraint, the absence of oppression, the state of not being imprisoned—remains for African Americans and other marginalized groups. "The struggle continues," says historian Richard Bailey, director of the Emancipation Association of Montgomery. "African Americans and all Americans have to realize there's nothing free about freedom. Whatever liberties that people enjoy today, those can be taken away."

Throughout history, few institutions have played a greater role in addressing the concerns, priorities, and politics of African Americans than the Black church. Christianity, as influenced by formerly enslaved worshippers, became a refuge from intolerance, hatred, and the immorality of slavery and injustice. The church was a site where culture was created, nourished, and protected. Bailey believes that, as marginalized people whose customs and traditions are constantly under threat, Black church leadership must always be vigilant in ensuring that the communities they foster recognize "from whence they came."

When Richard Williams, who pastors Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Montgomery, considered the weight of this mission amid the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, his church pews empty of the men and women he had guided each Sunday for the past two years, he thought of one word: purpose.

Pastor Richard Williams
Pastor Richard Williams of Montgomery’s Metropolitan United Methodist Church. Robbie Caponetto

"Why are we here, and what is this institution's value to our neighbors?" thought Williams. "We find ourselves in a space where many people are saying the church is needed. If that's the case, what changes are we going to make, and how are we going to lean into our mission?" As the news reports they saw were bolstered by personal accounts from church members detailing the disastrous impact of COVID-19 on people throughout their community and the country, he and his congregation sprung into action.

Williams scaled up the church's food bank program and converted the sanctuary into a makeshift warehouse for donated items. He partnered with local health organizations and designated Metropolitan as a COVID testing site; later it became a place where community members could get vaccinated. The congregation created a burial program to assist people who had lost loved ones to community violence and couldn't afford the cost of funeral services. For Williams and his flock, the church stepped into its purpose.

Nationwide, church membership has steadily declined across denominations since the turn of the 21st century. In 2020, a Gallup poll showed, for the first time in 80 years, that less than half (47%) of all Americans belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque—down from 70% in 1999.

The church's role in society writ large has clearly changed. Although a greater percentage of Black Americans reported that they still belonged to a church congregation (59%) in 2020, it represented a 19% drop in attendance since the period between 1998 and 2000.

For some, these statistics reinforce the need to recenter the Black church's function as a site of aid, power building, and preservation of cultural heritage.

Wanda Battle, who attends Union Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Madison Park—a historically Black community founded in 1880 by formerly enslaved people and annexed by Montgomery in 1980—believes this is imperative.

"The church in our Black community has always been a nucleus for social and political activity, and I believe pastors still have that place if they will take it," she says.

Wanda Battle
Wanda Battle of Montgomery’s Union Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Robbie Caponetto

Battle was raised in Montgomery, but her parents moved the family to Atlanta following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. She remembers attending December's late-night service at Shaw Temple AME Zion Church as a teenager. After it was over, church members stayed together and ate breakfast until well past 1 a.m.

Although she doesn't recall the tradition's connection to emancipation being emphasized in those services, she believes its message is particularly vital. She has a strong desire to adopt Freedom's Eve at Union Chapel, given the community's close ties to the vestiges of slavery. "This is the original acknowledgment of our freedom," says Battle. "It's a tribute to our ancestors who struggled and overcame so many obstacles and, at the same time, have inspired us to continue to persevere.... Every way in which we can keep telling this story, we must."

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