Vigil of Freedom, Faith

Serving Communion during the Night Watch are Deacons Clifton Hendrix, Clarence Lyles, Lawrence Coleman, John Peoples, Thomas Coleman and the Rev. Eric Bell. (Photo/Clifton Hendrix)

Serving Communion during the Night Watch are Deacons Clifton Hendrix, Clarence Lyles, Lawrence Coleman, John Peoples, Thomas Coleman and the Rev. Eric Bell. (Photo/Clifton Hendrix)

WINNSBORO (Jan. 5, 2017) – The members of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Blair gathered on New Year’s Eve for their church’s annual Night Watch service. Visiting Minister Whitney Bell gave the history of Watch Night and her husband, the Rev. Eric Bell, was the speaker for the evening. The service has been a tradition in many African-American congregations since New Year’s Eve 1862 and is still observed by many churches in Fairfield County.

The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as Freedom’s Eve, which began Dec. 31, 1862. On that night, black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law.

At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God.

Blacks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year. It’s been over a century since the first Freedom’s Eve, and tradition still brings us together at this time every year to celebrate ‘how we got over.’ This celebration takes many African American descendants of slaves into a new year with praise and worship.

The service usually begins anywhere from 7 to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. Some people come to church first, before going out to celebrate. For others, the Night Watch service is the only New Year’s Eve event they celebrate.

Source: The African American Desk Reference. Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture. ©1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and The New York Public Library, John Wiley U Sons, Inc. Pub. ISBN 0-471-23924.