The Watch Meeting Night Services in Black America
As we approach the New Year, pastors and local church leaders are busily planning special Christmas worship services, children’s Christmas programs and, hopefully, planning for Watch Meeting Night Services.
The Watch Night worship service has been a strong African Methodist tradition from the very beginnings of the AME Church. I mention that because there has been a revisionist account that originally stated that Watch Night Services in black communities can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom's Eve" when blacks came together in churches and private homes to await the news that the Emancipation Proclamation was going to become law. The revisionist account of the Watch Night Service says, “Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year's Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year.” The story is heartwarming, but there is more to the story.
Today, the Watch Night Service is held in a lot of black and white Churches; and the Emancipation Proclamation story has relevance and I am certain that the night of December 31, 1862 had a special meaning for the slaves. However, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free all of the slaves, but I am also certain that, for those who were freed, December 31st remained a significant day in their lives as long as they lived. But, the Watch Night service didn't begin in 1862; it began many years prior to that date.
The Watch Night Service reportedly began with the Moravians in Germany and was picked up by John Wesley who incorporated the service in Methodism. In England, Europe, and in America, the early Methodists and other religious groups also observed Watch Night services; the Moravians certainly did. The noted homiletician, Charles H. Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher, preached a Watch Night Sermon on December 31, 1855 and took his text from Lamentations 2:19.
In America, among the earliest Watch Night services was probably held at St. George Church in Philadelphia where Richard Allen was a member. To say that the Watch Meeting services began in the mid-1800 is a myth. It is certain that Richard Allen celebrated Watch Meeting night services at St. George Church and it would follow that Watch Meeting Night services were held at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
Originally, Watch Night services were held to deepen the spiritual life of the Methodists and Wesley, himself explained in his Journal that Watch Night services in England were generally held between 8:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on the Friday nearest the full moon "so that participants walked safely home through moonlit streets." In 19th Century Philadelphia the Methodists continued the practice of watch-night services on New Year's Eve. The newly-formed AME Church members, wherever AME Churches were located, celebrated Watch Meeting Night services.
Watch Meeting Night Service is a tradition that I hope will continue because we have a lot for which to be thankful. All of us have a testimony to give, a song to sing and a prayer to be prayed. In the black community, the Watch Meeting Night began with us, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and with the Right Reverend Richard Allen, the first consecrated and elected bishop.
Though other denominations have Watch Night services, Watch Meeting Night worship is a Methodist tradition and we should never, ever, forget it.
Dr. Calvin H. Sydnor III,
The 20th Editor, The Christian Recorder