by Ken Sehested
“Watch Night” services began in 1733 with the Moravian communities in what is now the Czech Republic. By 1740 John Wesley and his Methodist movement within Anglicanism had adopted the tradition, with New Year’s Eve services ending after midnight, marked by penitence over shortcomings in the year past and resolution of greater faithfulness in the year ahead. One of the observance’s functions was to provide an alternative to the drunken revelry common in Britain on that night.
The Wesleyan revivals were especially attractive to the working class. Indeed, the early Methodist emphasis on sanctification (“holiness”) did not split personal from social application. Methodist societies were active in the abolitionist movement. “The ‘General Rules’ began with the commitment to give evidence of salvation by ‘Doing no harm’ and avoiding evil of every kind,” writes Bill Wylie-Kellermann,* noting that “‘doing no harm’ is an 18th century synonym for practicing nonviolence.” Significantly, the originating Methodist conference in the US called for the expulsion of any member participating in the slave trade, though the press of economic forces gradually weakened the tradition’s abolitionist convictions.
In African American churches New Year’s Watch Night services have special historical significance, since on New Year’s Eve in 1862 many gathered in sanctuaries to await news of President Abraham Lincoln’s promised Emancipation Proclamation. That occasion restored in the “sanctification” movement and its many descendants the link of personal and social holiness—though, as in earlier movements, economic interests often undermine social convictions. Charitable initiatives are everywhere applauded and are standard fare on television news during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season. (There is not equal time for the work of justice, which threatens established economic interests.)
It was at Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston that renowned abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and others were gathered to celebrate the 1863 New Year’s Day news of freedom. Douglass later wrote that the meeting, which lasted until dawn, “was one of the most affecting and thrilling occasions I ever witnessed, and a worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages.”**
Watch Night is a kind of waiting, to be sure, but not wistfully so, not a pining for an imagined past, not an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, it is preparation for the moment when marching orders are issued: On your mark . . . get set . . . .
*“Of Violence and Hope: Death Undone,” Response magazine
**The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
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The quelling word: A poem for Watch Night
Emancipation is (still) coming
Written against the backdrop of New Year's Eve services, 1861, when African Americans gathered to await news of US President Abraham Lincoln's promised "Emancipation Proclamation."
The angel breaks with Heaven’s hail!
from Joy’s horizon on every weary heart,
amid that unruly, precarious land beyond
where cheery sentiment stalls and merry,
bright roads end. Now, in terrain beyond all
mapping, the adventure begins. No warranty
reaches this far. Creature comforts here are
few, risks are high, and danger surrounds.
Here winded Breath calls to bended knee
with promises of ecstasy and manna’s
fragile provision. Here water clefts rocks to
slake desperate thirst. Chained, tamed hearts
will never survive, deprived as they are of
Mercy’s solvent power to undo generations-old
resentments, driven deep by fear’s reflexive
habit into armed entrenchments. The
temptation is strong to abandon earth’s rancor
in favor of Heaven’s rapture. Yet from Joy’s
horizon storms the quelling word: Heaven’s
abode is anchored in earth’s tribulation.
The proclamation has been rendered;
incarnation, tendered; emancipation,
though delayed, will not finally be hindered.
Misery’s tearful eye will glisten with elation;
mournful cries shall rise in thankful jubilation.
Despoiling death itself will yield to adoration.
Behold! All things—from earth’s bounded
borders to Heaven’s blissful shore—stand
destined under Glory to be made new.
The quelling word to a quarreling world:
Come home. Come home.