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A watchnight service is a late-night Christian church service. In many different Christian traditions, a watchnight service is held late on New Year's Eve, and ends after midnight. This provides the opportunity for Christians to review the year that has passed and make confession, and then prepare for the year ahead by praying and resolving. The services often include singing, praying, exhorting, and preaching.
Following the lead of a small Christian denomination called the Moravians in what is now the Czech Republic that began having "watch" services in 1733, the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, originated watch night services in 1740, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal Services. The services provided Methodist Christians with a godly alternative to times of drunken revelry, such as Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Today, a Methodist watchnight service includes singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, as well as scripture readings; the liturgy for this service is found in The United Methodist Book of Worship.
Watchnight service has added significance and history in the African-American community in the United States, since many slaves were said to have gathered in churches on New Year's Eve, in 1862, to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, on January 1, 1863.
At A WATCH-NIGHT SERVICE: Methodism has one special institution. Its lovefeasts are old-old as Apostolic times. Its class meetings are the confessional in its simplest and most unobjectionable type, but in the institution of the watch-night it boldly struck out a new path for itself. In publicly setting apart the last fleeting moments of the old year and the first of the new to penitence, and special prayer, and stirring appeal, and fresh resolve, it has set an example which other sects are preparing to follow.
In 1740, Wesley started watch-night services for the coal miners of the Kingswood area, offering this noctural worship as a godly alternative to spending their evenings in ale-houses. The watch-night services consisted of singing, praying, exhorting, and preaching for a number of hours. Wesley meant to establish it as a monthly practice, always at full moon to keep the meeting well lit. In America, this service often supplanted times of traditional drunken revelry, like New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve.
Methodism founder John Wesley originated Watch Night services in the mid-18th century, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal services. The original services were spontaneous prayer services designed to deepen the spiritual life of Methodists.
The service is loosely constructed with singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, and readings, including the Covenant Renewal service from The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 288-294).
Watch Night took on even more significance during the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to take effect Jan. 1, 1863. Slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.