Watch Night

Photo of a Watch Night meeting held at 10 Tremont Row in Boston, Massachusetts, on Dec. 31, 1862. —Library of Congress photo

As documented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, none other than the great Frederick Douglass on Dec. 31, 1862, proclaimed, “It is a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine … are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn up on us.”

Brother Douglass was talking about Watch Night — correctly known as Freedom's Eve — when he made that proclamation.

And what he was talking about was spiritual and cultural, not religious and congregational.

That spiritual and cultural event that he was referencing happened on that date 159 years ago at around 7 p.m. when enslaved Black men, women and children unknowingly created something historians would later refer to as Watch Night/Freedom's Eve, which was our ancestors' reaction to President Abraham Lincoln’s anticipated Jan. 1, 1863, so-called Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately, far too many Black pastors didn't know much about our history, which is exactly why, for over a century and a half, many Black churches throughout the U.S. have held Watch Night services within about an hour of midnight on Dec. 31. The pastors claim it’s to acknowledge the hopeful Christianity of their enslaved ancestors — ancestors who were ostensibly awaiting the coming of their Jesus, hence their heavenly freedom. But those pastors were — and many of today’s pastors still are — just plain wrong about the real meaning of Watch Night/Freedom's Eve.

The real truth is that our enslaved ancestors were not awaiting heavenly Jesus — which they already had. Instead, they were awaiting earthly freedom — which they did not have.

The historical record proves that. Allow me to explain.

* Watch Night was created in Europe by white people who transported it to America.

The original Watch Night — which is distinguished from what enslaved Blacks later, specifically, and prophetically referred to as “Freedom’s Eve” — was created in 1733 by the Moravians, a white European Protestant Christian denomination in present-day Czech Republic (in what was then called Moravia). They held their first Watch Night service at the palace of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in nearby Hernhut, Germany.

About 40 years later in 1770, Watch Night took on a slightly different form, called Covenant Renewal Services, when it was brought to America by John Wesley. He was the Anglican clergyman who founded the Methodist Church, which was a revival and Protestant movement within the Church of England and which used a “methodical” approach to Christian living. Those Methodists initially held their Watch Night services every month and during every full moon. These services took place in Philadelphia at Old St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 N. Fourth St.

When these white European Moravians and these white American Methodists held their separate formal services on December 31, they did so in order to “watch over and meditate on” their past to determine if they would be ready for the possible coming of their god in the new year.

* Watch Night/Freedom's Eve was re-created in “slave” cabins by Blacks.

When enslaved Blacks held their informal services on plantations and in cabins on Dec. 31, 1862, they did so because they had heard rumors about Lincoln’s so-called Emancipation Proclamation, which had been publicized on Sept. 22, 1862, but was to go into effect  Jan. 1, 1863.

It’s the so-called Emancipation Proclamation because it proclaimed freedom only for those enslaved in 10  Confederate states but not in five other Southern “slave states” or in northern “slave states” such as New Jersey and Delaware. Moreover, it was not designed to really emancipate anyone. Instead, it was simply a political tool designed to deplete the South of its most valuable resource, which was enslaved Blacks. As stated by Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher, “Without enslaved labor, there was no way the Confederacy could mobilize its manpower and overcome the Union.” In other words, beat the carpenter by taking his tools.

* To whites, Watch Night was religious and congregational, but to Blacks it was spiritual and cultural.

The key factor that distinguishes white Watch Nights, meaning the 1733 European version and the 1770 American version, from the 1862 Black version is that the Black version was also called Freedom’s Eve. For whites, Watch Night meant “watching” for the coming of their god. But for Blacks, Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve meant “watching” for the coming of their freedom.

It is for these types of reasons that humanities and social sciences professor Emily Blanck at Rowan University wrote last year that Watch Night/Freedom's Eve began as an event “reflecting on the meaning of freedom and of using one's liberation toward spiritual renewal.”

I must point out that shortly after the brutal back-breaking plantation labor ended for the day, which was always around 7 p.m., enslaved Blacks across the South began gathering in shack-like cabins on Dec. 31, 1862, to await their freedom.

Their descendants — meaning you and me — reaped the benefits of their waiting, but more important of their courage, their heroism, their struggles, their battles, and especially their victories in the form of the Civil War in May 1865 and the 13th Amendment (slavery “abolition”) in December 1865 and also reaped the benefits of the groundwork they laid for later victories in the form of the 14th Amendment (citizenship) in 1868, the 15th Amendment (voting rights for Black men) in 1870, the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Because of what our selfless and sacrificing ancestors did for all Black folks, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition/ATAC (AvengingTheAncestors.com) invites you to join us when we gather at ATAC's 14th annual Watch Night/Freedom's Eve remembrance event.

Once again this year, due to COVID-19, the event will be held virtually and begin at 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 via Zoom. But in order to view it, you must RSVP via email to  MichaelCoardX@gmail.com in order to receive the Zoom ID and password.

In closing, I'd like you to do two things:

1. Please share this historically truthful lesson with your Black pastor. And here's why: As a spiritual, cultural and revolutionary locs-wearing Black Palestinian once said about 2,000 years ago before the white government crucified him, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

2. While you're experiencing the Watch Night/Freedom's Eve Zoom event and also while you're living the remainder of your entire life, “Never forget. Always avenge.”

Michael Coard, Esq. can be followed on Twitter, Instagram, and his YouTube channel as well as at AvengingTheAncestors.com. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD 96.1 FM or 900 AM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCAM/Verizon Fios/Comcast. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Philadelphia Tribune.

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