Watch Night: The ‘moment when memory becomes hope’

AP The original Emancipation Proclamation. In all the years I attended Watch Night services on New Year’s Eve in African … Continued

AP

The original Emancipation Proclamation.

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.

Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.