Watch Night services celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863

December 27, 2008 

Although New Year's Eve church services were started in the mid-1700s by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, the event, known as Watch Night, occupies a special place in black communities across America.

In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln announced that the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect Jan. 1, freeing all slaves in Confederate states, abolitionists and slaves reportedly gathered together on what was called "Freedom's Eve" to await and watch what the new year would bring.

This act would eventually become known as Watch Night. Many black churches even continue the tradition of reading the Emancipation Proclamation during the ceremony.

St. Helena Island-based churches, First African Baptist, Nazareth Baptist and Scottsville Baptist, have held joint Watch Night services for the past two years and will do so again this New Year's Eve. The Emancipation Proclamation will be read during the service, hosted by Nazareth Baptist this year, and food will be served.

"People want to get off to a proper start," said the Rev. Dr. Elijah Washington, of First African Baptist, which hosted joint services last year. "You want to start the New Year off with Jesus on your mind, and prayerfully it will take you on through the entire year, but it's just like getting off on the good foot. That's basically what it is. At midnight, you should find yourself praying."

The Emancipation Proclamation also will be read during Watch Night at the historic Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island. Its ceremony will begin around 10:30 p.m. Brick Baptist is the oldest church on St. Helena Island. The church was built by slaves in 1855 for plantation owners, and former slaves assumed control of the building in 1861 after the Battle of Port Royal.

"Watch Night is a way of thanking God and just being thankful because we're alive to see the dawn of another year," said the church's the Rev. Abraham Murray. "I think this year will be a little bit more significant. We're grateful that we have an African-American who will be installed as president, but our hope is in the Lord, so we just thank the Lord for what the Lord has brought

us."

Although the Emancipation Proclamation will not be read at Lighthouse Christian Center in Beaufort, Chad Nobles, who pastors the church with his wife Ann, said that they will also bring in the new year in prayer, a common practice at Watch Night services. Breakfast will be served after midnight.

"We start off with praise and worship thanking God," said Nobles. "Most African-American churches start around 10 o'clock and have a two-hour service. We also have a period of testimony thanking God for what He has done in 2008. About 10 minutes before 12 o'clock, we go into prayer and go into the New Year on our knees."

While Murray wasn't sure if Watch Night had been observed at Brick Baptist since its founding, the Rev. Kenneth Hodges said that his Tabernacle Baptist Church has performed the ceremony since it was organized in 1863, although he said that they generally do not recite the Emancipation Proclamation.

"We reflect on the past year and project toward the future year," said Hodges. "Watch Night is unique because it gives the audience an opportunity to express themselves in meaningful ways -- some in song, some in a testimony -- of something that they've experienced for the year and what they hope for."

Hodges said Tabernacle Baptist's service will include a meal, as well as lots of upbeat spirituals and hymns. The service will start at 10 p.m. Although many Americans are facing tremendous obstacles, Hodges said that worshippers still have a lot to be thankful for.

"These are some seriously challenging times, and people are drawing nearer to the church, the fellowship of believers and the family environment that is in the church," Hodges said.

"A lot of people are reassessing their priorities and turning to God to help them to endure some of the challenges that will definitely be in store in the new year."

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