Watch Night: A holy ritual on New Year’s Eve bears witness to the unfinished business of emancipation

Not since the peak years of the civil rights movement has Watch Night carried the power and import it will in 2020.

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An illustration of African Americans waiting on Dec. 31, 1862, for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Library of Congress

Early in “The Souls of Black Folk,” the book that established his reputation and remains a classic to this day, W.E.B. DuBois observed of African-American religion: “Few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro... In song and exhortation swelled one refrain — Liberty.”

DuBois pointedly noted that he was writing precisely 40 years since the emancipation of 3.5 million Black people then enslaved in the Confederacy. He was not only identifying the liberation theology at the heart of African-American Christianity in general. He was describing a specific and holy ritual that is traced to the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation: Watch Night.

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In anticipation of the president signing the order on the first day of 1863, Black people in the slave-holding South, the nominally free North and the ambiguous border states stayed awake in their churches and congregations, the whole night of December 31, 1862, joining in biblical texts and praise songs that promised freedom by God’s mighty hand.

In the years since, Watch Night services became a staple of African American faith.

While some white Protestant denominations, too, have held New Year’s Eve vigils, for Black Christians the worship service has retained a singular significance, a way of bearing witness to the unfinished business of emancipation and continuing to solicit divine deliverance.

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It is also safe to suggest that not since the peak years of the civil rights movement has Watch Night carried the power and import it will in 2020. Looking backward on the year past, Black congregants can see many miseries: the plague of police killings of Black citizens that set off massive nationwide protests; the racially unequal toll of death and illness inflicted by COVID-19; the passing of Rep. John Lewis, who embodied the freedom struggle; and the persistent efforts by the Trump administration to suppress or nullify presidential votes in largely nonwhite cities.

Looking ahead just five days into 2021, congregants see the balance of power in the Senate, and thus the federal government, depending on the results of two run-off elections in Georgia. One of them involves a Democratic candidate who is a prominent African-American minister, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. Among his duties during his years as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta has been to preside over Watch Night.

“This Watch Night, lots of people are still watching for freedom, in light of neo-Confederacy, in light of state violence against Black people,” said the Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, a professor of theology and African American religion at Yale Divinity School.

“We are still watching for freedom, for the opportunity to ‘secure the blessings of liberty,’ as the Constitution says, for Black life. And what makes the tradition of Watch Night so relevant is that we’re not waiting in a static register, we are waiting for the moment to re-up our resistance, and to show the face of that resistance on Jan. 5.”

Dr. Josef Sorett, a professor of religion and African-American Studies at Columbia University, likened the heightened emphasis on Watch Night this year to the increased national attention paid to the traditional Black holiday of Juneteenth as a result of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Juneteenth commemorates the day (June 19, 1865) when a Union general brought word of the Civil War’s end and thus freedom to enslaved Blacks in Texas.

“As people are reclaiming Juneteenth on a national level — cities, universities, corporations, communities — the sacred histories that are part and parcel of the Black Church are also coming to the fore,” Sorett said. “We think of emancipation itself as a sacred aspiration. So when we think about Watch Night, it captures the degree to which the Black church has been the public entity that represented Black desires and pursuits. And this annual ritual emerged around conceiving of emancipation as a sacred event.”

Because Black churches typically operate with great autonomy, there is no official liturgy for a Watch Night service. But broadly speaking, it will often include testimonies by elder congregants; sermons or readings from the Exodus narrative; the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, as communion is commonly known; and what Dr. Turman described as “hymns of solidarity, of community, of faith” — some of the staples being “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” and “Lord Hold My Hand, While We’re Running This Race.”

For African American ministers this pandemic year, Watch Night brings both immense resonance and unprecedented practical obstacles. Less than 20 miles from the Georgia state line, the Rev. Dr. Douglas A. Slaughter of Second Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C., has been holding nearly every service on the internet since last spring. So it will be with Watch Night, as well.

“For as long as I can remember, we’ve gathered to celebrate that night,” he said. “More than a historical event for us, it’s a spiritual event. We’ve always viewed emancipation through the lens of the Exodus in the Old Testament, and our Watch Night is like the Old Testament’s Passover. And gathering together is so important for the Black church. The fellowship is what people miss most and it’s the hardest to replicate virtually.”

For the past few weeks, Rev. Slaughter has been working with Second Baptist’s in-house video producer to film performances by the church’s choir and dance troupe. Longtime members of the congregation have made cellphone recordings of testimonies. All those elements, culminating in the Lord’s Supper, will be streamed online for the church’s socially distanced members.

Even so, Rev. Slaughter expects the consequence of Watch Night to be undimmed, especially after this epochal year.

“I’ve heard someone frame it this way,” he said. “We’re in the middle of the second civil rights movement and that alone gives it more intensity. It’s very much a part of the mindset of the Black church and the Black community. I’ve heard it in conversations with younger members of the community who are out on such a mission to make things change. And that’s what’s making our country face some of the issues we’ve ignored for such a long time. The word is still going forth.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of books including “Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church.”

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