This post is specifically intended for my white friends who (like me until several years ago) have never heard of Watch Night, or don’t understand the significance of its observation on New Year’s Eve; specifically in African American churches and communities.
Watch Night originated with John Wesley in the mid-18th century, designed to deepen the spiritual commitment of members of the Methodist Church with the coming of each new year.
On New Year’s Eve in 1862, Watch Night took on special significance as African Americans, abolitionists, and others opposed to slavery awaited word that President Lincoln would indeed sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He did, of course, and January 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of that momentous occasion. Watch Night became, in a very real sense, a true Independence Day for African American people, since, as Frederick Douglass pointed out during a speech on July 5, 1852:
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
No one was immediately freed as a result of Lincoln’s Proclamation. But once issued, it shifted the focus of the Civil War from preserving the union to one of human liberation. Word of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t reach people still enslaved in Texas for another two and a half years. June 19, 1865 is now celebrated as “Juneteenth” – another important Independence Day.
Slavery was officially abolished by the United States with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.
The celebration of independence in this nation is complicated. As we continue in our quest to create “a more perfect union”, the prayerful and respectful commemoration of Watch Night is one of the important steps in our journey together.
Happy Watch Night, Independence Day, Emancipation Proclamation Sesquicentennial, and New Year everyone!