In all the years I attended Watch Night services on New Year’s Eve in African American churches, I never knew its origins. I only recently learned that it originated with African Americans awaiting the New Year when the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect.
Watch Night services include testimonies about the goodness of God in our lives over the past year. We share our personal stories with praise and thanksgiving. We also remember those who have died to this earthly existence during the past year that is now itself passing into history. A minister preaches, and at midnight we pray God’s blessings on the coming year. Watch Night is the moment where memory becomes hope.
This year, we are reminded of the sesquicentennial or the 150the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and how the moment of memory and hope all those years ago brought humanity one step farther away from the depravity that was slavery and one step closer to a more righteous humankind.
History tells us that there were two proclamations of emancipation before the one issued by Abraham Lincoln. In her book “Team of Rivals,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us that two generals issued such proclamations before the president. Gen. John C. Fremont declared martial law in Missouri with a directive for Union troops to confiscate all property, including slaves, of those fighting against the Union. Fremont’s proclamation declared the confiscated slaves to be free. With this move, Fremont had singlehandedly made the war a war against slavery.
However, this was not a step Lincoln was ready to make lest the slave-holding border states join the Confederacy, so he ordered Fremont “ to revise his proclamation to conform to the provisions of the Confiscation Act.” In May of 1862, Gen. David Hunter declared all slaves “forever free” in the states under his command—South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Again, Lincoln repudiated this move thinking that an order of such importance and consequence ought to come from the president himself. It ought to come from the commander in chief.
At the same time, Lincoln and his advisors thought an Emancipation Proclamation had to be timed in concert with victories on the battlefield otherwise it would be seen as an act of desperation. Slave labor aided the Confederate army by doing non-combat related work thus allowing more white soldiers to fight. Slave labor also aided the economy of the Confederacy by keeping farms and plantations producing cash crops. Lincoln reasoned that emancipating Confederate slaves was permissible under a president’s war powers.
The Union victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the military success he needed to issue the Proclamation that would take effect on Jan. 1, 1863. And as important a step as it was, making the moral character of the Civil War that of human liberation and not only maintenance of the Union, it only emancipated the enslaved of those states in rebellion. Slave-holding states in the Union were exempt. It would take the 13th Amendment to end slavery in the entire nation. There is a 13th Amendment movement that celebrates this during a week starting Dec. 6.
There was then and still remains much work to do around issues of justice and human equality. One hundred and fifty years ago, some people who were opposed to slavery were also opposed to African Americans living as equals to European Americans in the United States. They feared racial “amalgamation.” The question for many was whether or not to compensate slave owners for the loss of their property. There was little said about compensating the freed slaves. Lincoln even met with free blacks to encourage them to sell the idea of colonization to other blacks, but the idea didn’t catch on widely among African Americans.
All of this notwithstanding, free blacks gathered in worship on New Year’s Eve 1862 to wait, watch, and welcome a New Year bringing a “new birth of freedom.” And each Watch Night since—when memory becomes hope—we are grateful for the blessings of the past and look forward to the continuing work of human moral evolution.