Many Washingtonians spent last Friday night and Saturday morning at African American churches observing Watch Night, a New Year’s Eve celebration little known outside of the black community, even though a painting of such a prayer meeting by New England artist William Tolman Carlton (above) hangs in the White House.
In 19th century England and America the secular celebration of New Year’s Eve was called “Watch Night” – Winslow Homer’s illustration in the January 5, 1861 Harper’s entitled “The Georgia Delegation in Congress Seeing the Old Year Out “ is subtitled “Watch Night.” The New Year’s Eve religious services called Watch Night developed in the Methodist Church in Britain as an occasion for the Covenant Prayer, through which believers re-commit themselves to God.
Thus it may already have been customary for black Methodists and Baptists to celebrate Watch Night, but December 31, 1862 had a momentous worldly significance: the Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect at midnight. This is why the celebration continues in African American churches today, striking a more joyous note than prior penitential Watch Nights.
The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves of the Confederate States. The prayer meeting congregation depicted in Carlton’s painting consists of “contrabands,” slaves of Confederate owners now in Union-occupied territory. The makeshift pulpit is made of boards salvaged from crates marked “U.S. Sanitary Commission,” the benevolent agency charged with their welfare. The minister’s timepiece reads 11:55.
Carlton’s painting is variously called “Watch Night — Waiting for the Hour” or ” Watch Meeting — Dec. 31st, 1862.” It was sent to President Lincoln by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in 1864 and also circulated widely as an engraving (below). The painting now hangs in what is called the Lincoln Bedroom, really that president’s study and Cabinet Room, over the desk upon which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1862.
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