It was Dec. 31, 1862. Freed and enslaved Blacks prayed and sang through the night at churches and elsewhere in anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation and thereby the right to join Union forces as the United States suffered division.
Nearly 160 years later, many Blacks and others continue the tradition known as Watch Night Service as an annual New Year’s Eve observance. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the format as Christians ushered in 2021 with virtual celebrations.
“The virtual services were provided to create a ‘gathering place’ for the church family who would normally attend an in-person Watch Night Service,” said Frank Williams, pastor of New York congregations Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church and the Bronx Baptist Church. “The virtual medium allows us to come together and interact … and write comments of gratitude and blessings for a new year.
“Our membership and friends find it uplifting to experience Watch Night together, even virtually. Without it, starting a new year would feel incomplete and unsanctified. Watch Night worship sets the tone for the rest of the year.”
Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., held Watch Night Service at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on four virtual platforms, Senior Pastor Emory Berry Jr. said, including Facebook Live, YouTube Live, the church’s website and its mobile app.
“There was high engagement on social media,” Berry said. “People were commenting. They were really, really grateful to see it out of 2020.”
Berry believes the hope of the original Watch Night in 1862, also known as Freedom’s Eve, continues. The African American-born tradition of Watch Night is unrelated to the New Year’s Eve watch night mass dating to earlier centuries and including Moravians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and other faith traditions.
“I think that we, over the years – I should say decades now – that African Americans have still maintained that hope that each year would be better than the year before.”
James Dixon Jr., founding pastor of El-Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md., opted to mark the new year during the time slot for Bible study he observes with the congregation Monday through Saturday each week. He preached and engaged the congregation in worship on a noon conference call on New Year’s Day.
“It went well,” Dixon said. “It is amazing how God has worked it through His Spirit with these elements and the way we’re doing things. It really was powerful.”
Dixon held the midday conference call in place of Watch Night Service out of concern for the health and engagement of elderly members of the congregation in particular.
“We usually come out around 10:30 or 11 o’clock,” he said. “Having it that late at night, how many folks will participate even on the phone? Especially with our senior folks, I decided to go with the service on New Year’s Day.”
Dixon and Berry have worshiped exclusively via virtual platforms since the pandemic began in March. Williams returned briefly to onsite worship in October and November, but again shifted to online-only platforms in December after COVID-19 cases began surging.
Dixon said, “I don’t know when we’re going to come back into the building. I’m of the opinion that the shepherd ought to lead his sheep to still waters, not stagnant waters. I don’t want our folks coming in here with fear in their hearts. Until the Lord gives me some directions on that, we’re going to continue to do service the way we’re doing it.”
Watch Night is a yearly custom for the congregations.
“Watch Night Service has been a longstanding tradition for the Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church and the Bronx Baptist Church,” Williams said. “While others are having celebratory parties of a different kind, it is important for the church to be gathered in celebration to God for His grace that allows us to enter a new year.”
The New York congregations cite worth in dedicating the first moments of a new year to the Lord, ensuring that they are worshiping as the new year begins, and encouraging people to make commitments to Christ to further their spiritual growth and development in the new year, Williams said.
“Having a Watch Night worship gathering is a part of our Caribbean Diasporan tradition that followed our church-affiliated immigrant membership as they would establish churches as a way to maintain their identity, and some familiar aspects of home away from home,” Williams said. “This tradition continues today as subsequent generations find value in this practice as a way to honor God and seek His guidance for a new year.”
Greenforest has celebrated Watch Night for decades. Berry added a new element to this year’s celebration by sharing videos of songs and ministry outreaches from 2020.
Viewers of the Greenforest Watch Night services were reminded of the more than 10,000 free COVID-19 tests the church facilitated as a testing site, the more than 15,000 people the church fed through grocery giveaways, the many people the church helped with rent and utilities through a $100,000 DeKalb County grant, and the more than 700 book bags filled with toys, clothes and school supplies the church gave away.
“Although there’s a lot to be sorrowful for in 2020,” Berry said, “we also saw how we were the hands and feet of Christ. The language I use is we’re a Matthew 25 church.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)