Ethics & Christian living

The political roots of the Watch Night New Year church service

The tradition of a New Year’s Eve church service was originally started by Moravian churches to reflect on the year that has past and to contemplate the one to come. John Wesley adopted the practice for his Methodist followers.

But it was given new significance by African-American communities on the 31st December 1862.

Original basis

The reason was because the next day the Emancipation Declaration became law: when the clock struck midnight on the 1st January 1863, all slaves in the confederate states were declared free.

Writing about that night, Booker T. Washington recorded:

‘As the day grew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the ‘freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now, they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the ‘freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.’

The ‘altar-call’

The integration of the spiritual and the political in Watch Night services has similarities with the origins of the ‘altar-call’ used by evangelists to ask people to come to the front of a church service or revival meeting.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the influential US evangelist Charles Finney denounced slavery as ‘a national sin’ and refused communion to slave holders. He popularised the practice of asking people in the congregations to come to the front at the end of his sermon in order to sign up the abolitionist movement as a sign of their commitment to Christ.

Many of us will have sung the great Christmas carol O Holy Night in the last few weeks. It was written in 1843 and first translated into English in 1855. The words in its third verse are a key reason why it’s such a great hymn and also what made it controversial at the time it was written:

“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, And in his name all oppression shall cease”


These examples of the integration of worship and social-political activism are important historical truths. Often today these matters are dis-integrated from each other in public discussion. And the split between beliefs and action malnourishes both sides.

Some activists and organisations are embarrassed of the beliefs which kick-started their work. I often see references to faith air-brushed out of the story of how charities who combat homelessness and poverty were formed, even when churches were core to their founding. The role of faith is an often treated like a slightly inconvenient truth. 

On the other side, within churches, on-going involvement in social action helps guard against beliefs becoming overly individualised, spiritualised or futurized.  When this happens, religion often becomes part of the problem, upholding the status quo rather than challenging or changing it. Authentic faith should always seek to have a real-world impact.

Motivational foundation

And this is what we see when we look at the origins of so much social and political activism.  Often, faith has provided the initial spark, the motivational foundation, from which work for justice grows. An exclusive faith often provides the spiritual power and strength of conviction which leads to inclusive action.

It is ironic that initiatives simply powered by a belief ‘in inclusion’ often don’t create the kind of diversity that faith can.  Churches continue to be some of the best ‘melting-pots’ for bringing together people from different backgrounds.

Integrated faith

As a contemporary example, I was so pleased to see Krish Kandiah receive an OBE today in the New Year’s Honours today for his tireless work for refugees and vulnerable children. Krish is also an inspirational theologian, preacher and author and his activism for justice is powered by his Christian convictions.  

In a world so full of needs and injustice, let us re-commit to an integrated faith that put beliefs into action and challenges injustice in bolder and braver ways in 2023. 

Happy New Year and may God bless you in the coming year.

The quote from Booker T Washington is taken from today’s liturgy in Common Prayer: a liturgy for ordinary radicals.  This prayer book is highly recommended.


3 thoughts on “The political roots of the Watch Night New Year church service”

  1. Thanks so much, Jon, for reminding us of the historical precedents, and of the power of an integrated faith – so important as we envision 2023. Nigel


  2. Thanks so much, Jon, of this reminder of the historical precedents and of the power of integrated faith, especially as we envision 2023. Nigel


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