The History of Watch Night Service in the U.S.

The Black Church tradition in the United States known as “Watch Night Service” emerged during the crucible of slavery in the American South as a response to the President Abraham Lincoln’s Executive Order issued on September 22, 1862 that stipulated:

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

In response to this news, enslaved persons across the American South gathered on December 31, 1862 in brush arbors, campfires in slave quarters, and other religious meeting sites to pray for what many saw as the beginning of the end to slavery in the United States. By explicitly making the freeing of enslaved persons a federal imperative for Union forces, Lincoln helped transform the American Civil War solely from a conflict “to preserve the union” to a conflict “to create a more perfect union” without the presence of slavery.

Throughout the United States today, many African American congregations still meet on December 31 in memorial to their enslaved foremothers and forefathers who prayed that night God would not only end the institution of slavery but create spaces within the United States for all peoples enjoys fruits of democracy – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Below are some of the ways you can enjoy Watch Night Services at several historic African American houses of worship across the United States. We hope you enjoy.

Abyssinian Baptist Church

Alfred Street Baptist Church

St. Phillip AME Church

West Angeles Church of God in Christ

Trinity United Church of Christ