Tonight the church honors not a saint, but an event: Watch Night, remembering the Emancipation Proclaimation of 1863.
Traditions surrounding a “night of watching” on New Year’s Eve can be found in Moravian and Methodist American history through the 1800’s. The practice may have begun almost a century earlier in Bohemian regions of Europe, however, as families marked endings and beginnings.
In America these vigils were taken as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and make resolutions for the coming one. Often held in churches and surrounded by prayer and music, these gatherings usually started in the evening and lasted past midnight.
In 1863, however, the tradition took on new life and a new focus in America as slaves in formerly Confederate States gathered in churches, homes, and rooms in the waning hours of 1862 awaiting President Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclaimation to take effect.
Watch Night continues to be an annual gathering, especially in communities of color, as a way to both remember what has happened and gather strength for continuing to work for the freedoms still to come. 2020 and 2021 have been stark reminders that the Emancipation Proclaimation was not, and has never been, enough in the struggle for all in this country to live in peace and enjoy prosperity. Indeed, that first proclamation didn’t “free all slaves” in the United States…that would take acts of individual legislation in many border states and territories over time.
We need to remember that racism and prejudice still influence our civic and religious lives, Beloved.
Watch Night is an invitation for us all to reflect and resolve to partner together to do more.