Coard: Three historical truths that pastors should learn about Watch Night

Carte-de-visite of enslaved Blacks awaiting the Emancipation Proclamation. —Heard & Moseley, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

by Michael Coard

I mean no disrespect. But many Black pastors don’t hold a Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) degree, Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) degree, Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree, Master of Theology (M.Th.) degree, Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree, Bachelor of Theology (B.Th.) degree, Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree, Bachelor of Religious Education (B.R.E.) degree, or Bachelor of Arts in Theology (B.A.) degree from any accredited institution. Neither have most of them done any substantive academic research in religious studies. Simply stated, they’re not well read at all.

Instead, they uncritically rely on the Bible’s King James Version, which was published in England in 1611 and was plagiarized not only from parts of “The 42 Laws of Ma’at,” which were written in Egypt (actually called Kemet) 4,536 years earlier in 2925 B.C. but also was plagiarized from “The Book of the Dead (actually called “The Book of the Coming Forth by Day”), which was written 3,161 years earlier in 1550 B.C. in Egypt as well.

Accordingly, they and most of their congregations have never understood the Bible, its sources, or its traditions. In fact, they obviously have never understood Christianity, its sources, or its traditions.

Watch Night, on December 31, is one of those Christian traditions- or at least that’s what most Black pastors preach and what most Black Christians believe.


But Watch Night, which is correctly known as Freedom’s Eve, is not a Christian tradition. Instead, it’s a spiritual and cultural thing, not a religious and congregational thing.

In its article entitled “The Historical Legacy of Watch Night,” the National Museum of African American History & Culture quoted Frederick Douglass’ New Year’s Eve speech from the night of December 31, 1862 when he declared that Watch Night is all about “The glorious morning of liberty about to drawn up on us.”

Douglass didn’t say it was about liberating souls sometime in the future in heaven. He said it was about liberating bodies that next day on Earth. And that’s because our enslaved ancestors weren’t awaiting heavenly Jesus, which they already had. Instead, they were awaiting earthly freedom, which they didn’t have.

That’s why, precisely 161 years ago on December 31, 1862 at around 7:00 p.m., enslaved Black men, women, and children unknowingly created something historical scholars would subsequently refer to as Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve, which was those enslaved Blacks’ reaction to President Abraham Lincoln’s anticipated January 1, 1863 so-called Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately, for over 150 years, many Black churches throughout this country have held Watch Night services within about an hour of midnight on December 31. The Black pastors there claim those services are designed to acknowledge the hopeful Christianity of their enslaved ancestors- ancestors who were supposedly awaiting the coming of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, hence their heavenly freedom. But those Black pastors were, and many of today’s Black pastors still are, simply wrong about the real meaning of Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve.

As a wise man once said, “Know the truth. And the truth shall make you free.” Therefore, here are three historical truths that Black pastors should preach to their Black congregations every December 31:

Watch Night was born in Europe to Whites and transported to America by them


The original Watch Night, which is distinguished from what enslaved Blacks 129 years later referred to and reconstituted as Freedom’s Eve, was created in 1733 by the Moravians, a White European Protestant Christian denomination in modern-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.

Exactly 37 years later in 1770, Watch Night took on a somewhat different form, called Covenant Renewal Services, when it was brought to the United States 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 applied 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 North Fourth Street.

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 reconstituted in “slave cabins” by Black people

When enslaved Black men, women, and children held their informal services on plantations and in ramshackle cabins on December 31, 1862, they did so because they had heard rumors about Lincoln’s so-called Emancipation Proclamation, which had been publicized on September 22, 1862 but was to go into effect on January 1, 1863.

It’s the so-called Emancipation Proclamation because it proclaimed freedom only for those enslaved in ten confederate states but not in five other southern “slave states” or in northern “slave states” such as New Jersey and Delaware. Furthermore, it was not designed to actually emancipate anyone. Instead, it was nothing more than a political tool devised to deplete the South of its most valuable resource, which was enslaved Blacks. As pointed out by Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher, “Without enslaved labor, there was no way the Confederacy could mobilize its manpower and overcome the Union.”

To Whites, Watch Night was religious and congregational, but to Blacks it was spiritual and cultural

The main 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.

Shortly after the brutally backbreaking plantation field labor ended for the day at around 7:00 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1862, enslaved Blacks across the South began gathering in their shack-like cabins to await what they hoped would finally be their freedom after 243 years since 1610.

I hope every Black pastor spreads this educational gospel far and wide for two reasons. One: It’s the truth. Two: It’s Black culture.

Amen and Amen.

Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well as at His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1FM.
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Tribune.

About Post Author


From the Web

Skip to content