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The Suburbanite
  • ‘Thenceforth and Forever Free’ ‘Watch Night’ service rooted in history

  • As people gathered in churches on the night of Dec. 31, 1862, they held hope against hope that their prayers finally would be answered.

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  • As people gathered in churches on the night of Dec. 31, 1862, they held hope against hope that their prayers finally would be answered.
    When midnight struck, one congregation caught its collective breath, and it wasn’t until a man ran into the church waving the awaited telegram, that the crowd erupted into cheers: President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy, had become law.
    A fatal blow against slavery, it led to the 13th and 15th Amendments, which outlawed slavery, and granted blacks American citizenship, respectively.
    In the 150 years hence, black Christians have embraced the tradition of “Watch Night” services.
    “Oral tradition has it that the slaves remained awake all night waiting to hear of their freedom,” said F. Douglas Powe Jr., a Canton native and associate professor of evangelism at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
    THE ANVIL
    Powe noted that black churches played a significant role in the bid for freedom.
    “One can simply look at the Methodist movement to see its significance,” he said. “Black Methodist denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, were formed as a result of slavery and racism experienced by Methodists. After African Americans were pulled off their knees while praying in a Methodist church and told to go back to their ‘rightful’ spots, Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, proclaimed that would never happen again.”
    Those who left with Allen, Powe said, held services in a blacksmith shop until they could purchase land to build Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. Today, the blacksmith anvil stands as a symbol of the AME Church.
    Powe likens black churches’ role in emancipation to that of actions taken during the Civil Rights movement.
    “It was the black church that would serve as safe houses for blacks escaping slavery in the South trying to gain their freedom in the North,” he explained. “The black church was instrumental in helping society to see the ills of slavery, racism, and prejudice using religion, particularly the Bible, to combat the treatment they were receiving at the hands of whites.”
    CINCINNATI FACTOR
    “Black churches played a huge role,” agrees Jodie McFarland, manager of volunteer initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. “One of the best examples in Cincinnati is Union Baptist Church. The church’s members were very outspoken. Frederick Douglass, and Henry Ward Beecher were invited there to speak. Black churches were typically very vocal about abolition and supported the printing of (abolitionist) newspapers such as Douglass’ ‘North Star’ and many others.
    “Black churches, along with newspapers, keyed in on the fact that it was their opportunity for freedom.”
    Page 2 of 2 - McFarland said Cincinnati was crucially linked to abolition. Salmon P. Chase, a Cincinnati abolition lawyer became governor, a U.S. senator, and Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. Ward Beecher graduated from Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where his father was president.
    His sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which even Lincoln acknowledged was a factor in igniting the Civil War. She lived in Cincinnati for 20 years, and used the things she’d seen and was told there, as the basis for the book.
     “It was called a slave city by day and a free city by night because of its geography and economy,” McFarland said. “It was the sixth-largest at the time, and was heavily involved in trade with the South.”
    JUBILEE
    “But even before 1862 and the possibility of a presidential emancipation, African people had gathered on New Year's Eve on plantations across the South,” said the Rev. Michael Lemon senior pastor of the Sherrick Road Church of God in Canton. “That is because many owners of enslaved Africans tallied up their business accounts on the first day of each new year. Human property was sold along with land and furnishings to satisfy debts. Families and friends were separated. Often they never saw each other again in this earthly world. Thus, coming together on Dec. 31 might be the last time for enslaved and free Africans to be together with loved ones.”
     The Rev. Rickie Asberry, co-pastor at City Hope United Methodist Church in Canton, said Watch Night is a tradition he found beneficial when he was a new Christian. His church plans to celebrate it on Monday night.
    “The meaning of it didn’t come to me until basically later,” Asberry said. “Until I started living the saved life, it was a celebration ... I just think it gives a good opportunity for people to put some of their practices to use.
    “For me, when I came to Christ, I wanted to change some things in my life. (Watch Night) gave me the incentive to really change some of the things I didn’t like about my behavior.  
    “As I’ve grown, I know you can start change any time. But for younger people in Christ, it’s a good time to enact some change.”
     “Many people believe the tone for the coming year is set by how you begin it,” Lemon said. “If you’re a Christian, what better way to bring the New Year in than in service? For others, Watch Night is a chance to reflect on the past year and prepare for the coming one.” “Many generations have passed since and most of us were never taught the African American history of Watch Night,” Lemon said.  Yet our traditions and our faith still bring us together at the end of every year to celebrate once again ‘how we got over.’”