By Lesley Gist, The Gist of Freedom
Origins of Watch Night!
The Emancipation Proclamation..Carlton’s painting is variously called “Watch Night — Waiting for the Hour” or ” Watch Meeting–Dec. 31st, 1862.” It was sent to President Lincoln by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison
The Watch Night painting hangs in the White House, in a room called the Lincoln Bedroom. Which is that president’s study and Cabinet Room, over the desk upon which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1862. Black Methodists and Baptists celebrate Watch Night, December 31, 1862: the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect at midnight. This is reason behind the celebration which continues in African American churches today. Today the celebrations strike a more joyous note than prior penitential Watch Nights.
The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to enslaved Africans of the Confederate States. The prayer meeting congregation depicted in Carlton’s painting consists of former enslaved Africans that migrated to Union territory during the Civil War.
The makeshift pulpit is made of boards salvaged from crates. The minister’s timepiece reads 11:55.
Carlton’s painting is variously called “Watch Night — Waiting for the Hour” or ” Watch Meeting–Dec. 31st, 1862.” In 1864 and also circulated widely as an engraving (below).
The painting now hangs in what is called the Lincoln Bedroom, actually that president’s study and Cabinet Room, over the desk upon which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1862.
“Watch Night Services” have special significance in African American communities. According to tradition, such gatherings can be traced back December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law.Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.
When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. The tradition of Watch Night Services continues to be observed in many churches, particularly African-American congregations, across the land. Learning of the African American connection with New Year’s Eve Services inspired this poem
Watch Night Service
They assembled together long before midnight
On Freedom’s Eve, last dark night of another year.
As old gave way to new and the last hours drew near,
They prayed into the New Year–Eighteen Sixty-three–
And stayed on their knees until the dawn’s early light,
As the good news proclaimed freedom across the land.
No longer shackled, no longer bound, they were free
To savor the pure sweetness of their liberty.
We now look back to see just how far we have come,
While looking ahead to see the coming Kingdom.
We are still watching and waiting, looking to see:
This could truly be the year of our Jubilee.
We stand in the fields of our heritage, gleaning,
As “Watch Night Service” takes on a whole new meaning.
As we approach another “Freedom’s Eve,”
we reflect upon the past with deepest gratitude for our journey,
thus far along the way,
and look ahead with anticipation of even greater triumphs ahead in 2013.