Roots trace back to ‘Freedom’s Eve,’ anticipation of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

Published 6:57 pm Friday, December 30, 2016

Saturday night, members of black churches in Vicksburg and Warren County will participate in a service that dates back almost 300 years and has historical significance for the African-American community going back to the Civil War.

According to an article on the African Methodist Episcopal Church website, Metropolitan, the tradition of Watch Night has its roots with a Christian denomination called the Moravians, who lived in what is now the Czech Republic during the mid-1700s.

It was later adopted by the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley, and each year on New Year’s Eve, members of the Methodist faith community gathered together to reflect on the previous year with a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s grace.

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The first Watch Services were held in America in 1770 at the St. George’s Methodist Church.

Two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were a part of the congregation, but later left the church after experiencing racial discrimination.

For African-Americans, the Watch Night tradition traces to Dec. 31, 1862, or “Freedom’s Eve,” when slaves gathered in anticipation of the implementation of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which declared on New Year’s Day, 1863, that all slaves living in states in rebellion against the United States were free.

The proclamation was later followed by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery on December 18, 1865.

And while the historic significance of Freedom’s Eve is not forgotten, most local churches celebrate Watch Night as a strictly religious service.

“The bottom line for us, we do it religiously; we thank God for another year,” said Dr. Casey Fisher, pastor of Greater Grove Street M.B. Church. “It’s a celebration of one year behind us and another heading in. Usually, people start in the evening and stay until midnight. Different churches do it differently; some start at 10 (p.m.) and others at 11 and go to midnight.

“We start our service at 7:30 and go until 9.”

Greater Rose Hill M.B. Church will start its program at 8 p.m. with a play, “No Place to Hide,” based the Book of Genesis, and tells the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and their attempts to return. The play is followed by the worship service at 10 p.m.

Watch Night, said the Rev. Lester Lacey, pastor Mount Zion No. 4 Baptist Church and Mount Zion Eagle Lake, “Is basically a church service, but it’s a blessing and watching the new year in as a Christian body. Rather than going out and drinking and doing the things of the world, we come together as a Christian body and praise and worship and bring the new year in.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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