Mountain Church Traditions: Watchnight Service

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Elders singing hymn at Baptist church near project. Dailey, West Virginia. Dec. 1941
Elders singing hymn at Baptist church near project. Dailey, West Virginia. Dec. 1941

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus commanded his disciples to “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.”

It has been roughly twenty centuries since the Savior first uttered this statement, but some six thousands miles away and two millennia later the believers living in Appalachia and throughout the Southland of the United States are doing their best to heed this ancient command; especially in the closing and opening minutes of each year.

While many will be drinking alcohol, partying wildly, and watching network television broadcasts of the New York ball dropping, many of the faithful throughout Appalachia will be on their knees praying for their families, churches and communities when the clock strikes midnight early Wednesday morning — an annual event that dates back centuries, known simply as a watchnight service.

Though the precise details often vary greatly between congregations and denominations, watchnight services in the United States are observed regularly by many evangelical denominations, especially among Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

“As a young girl, December 31st always meant one thing — we’d be going to church that night for our church’s annual watchnight service,” states Ann, whose father was a Baptist deacon.

“We would arrive at the church around 8 p.m. and gather in the auditorium and listen to some singing, typically followed by a young preacher who would get up and speak for about a half hour.

“Afterwards, we’d assemble in the fellowship hall for a meal and a time of fellowship, as well as some games… Around 11 that evening, we’d go back into the sanctuary and listen to the pastor speak for a while, sing a little more, then when there were about ten minutes remaining until midnight, we’d all gather on the altar together — which was nothing more than the steps at the front of the auditorium that led to the pulpit — and spend the next twenty minutes or so praying.  This way, we’d end the old year and begin the new year in prayer.”

Though Ann was born and raised in North Carolina, her memories of watchnight services have been echoed throughout the region by other children of faithful saints who grew up not watching balls drop, but instead on bended knee.

The modern history of watchnight services can be traced back to 1740 when John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church began holding services on New Years night as a way to counter the revelry and drunken partying that otherwise took place on New Years Eve.

Wesley called the services, “Covenant Renewal Services” and early Methodists were expected to renew their faith in God and commitment to living a Christian life in the year to come.

In the century that followed, Methodism became a major denomination in the United States, especially in the mountains of Appalachia, where circuit rider preachers rode from town to town, preaching a gospel that called on hearers to repent and become born again.

As more and more people in the mountains became Methodists, so too did the popularity of watchnight services in the mountains of Appalachia.

Soon, Baptists and later Pentecostals, began holding similar services, until watchnight service became a commonly adhered to annual church service.

In addition to being an important part of the New Year’s celebration in many mountain churches, watchnight services are believed to hold an added significance in the African-American community, since many slaves are 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.

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