And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. Exodus 13:14.

Watch Night Service is more than just something to do instead of partying on New Year’s Eve.  It is at once both an act of obedience and of commemoration of two miraculous occurrences for all Americans, but especially for Americans of the African diaspora who wish to witness to a dying world about the saving power of Jesus Christ. Some critical dates illuminate that fact.

1807 The U.S. Congress prohibited the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808. (209 years ago-that’s just 10 generations.)    

1862 The Emancipation Proclamation was signed, freeing all slaves residing in the states which seceded from the Union, effective January 1, 1863. (154 years ago-that’s just 7 generations!)

It could be argued that we, Americans of the African diaspora, who have been watching and waiting and celebrating the revolutionary Jesus Christ, are the best examples of God’s matchless grace, mercy and unfailing faithfulness and therefore we should be His best and most effective witnesses.  Is there a better example of God’s ability to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us? Ephesians 3:20.  The fact that too many people, including too many black people in church, are unaware of it does not negate the fact that the story of our diaspora is no less thrilling than that of the children of Israel.  But to illuminate and validate that statement we have to understand the factual history of this great nation and our unique role in it’s spiritual, intellectual and physical construction.  We have to know what God has done, for knowing is part of wisdom.  And the more we remember and repeat what we know, the greater our understanding becomes. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.  Proverbs 4:7.

Africans in the Americas: Historical Facts & Legal Controversy.                                                                       In Sunday School we learned the political and geographic history surrounding the diaspora of the children of Israel in order to better understand the greatness of their Old Testament deliverance.  By the same token our knowledge of the political and geographic history surrounding the diaspora of Africans in the Americas will help us understand the greatness of our ongoing deliverance. 

1493 The foundation of the transatlantic slave trade began with Christopher Columbus’ 2nd voyage to the so-called “New World”. From the middle of the 15th century until the 19th century the transatlantic slave trade resulted in the kidnapping and forced migration of between 12 – 15 million people from the continent of Africa to the Western Hemisphere.                                                                    

1619 African slaves provided the free labor essential for the economic development and stability of European business interests in the Caribbean as well as North, South and Central America. Our ancestors provided the free labor that supported European imperialism and fueled the developing economies across all the Americas-not just the yet to be codified United States.                                                                                                             

1776 At the start of the American Revolution 500,000 Africans were enslaved in the 13 colonies, including more than 30,000 in New York and New Jersey. No, the “peculiar institution” was not limited to the South. All the original colonies depended upon and benefited from the economic boon of chattel slavery.  

1793 Congress passed The Fugitive Slave Act as as extension of Article 4, Section 2 of the Constitution, legally requiring the capture and return of all escaped slaves and levying criminal penalties and substantial fines against all who gave aid because it was in the economic interest of the nation to maintain and preserve chattel slavery. For the love of money is the root of all evil. 1 Timothy 6:10. This was not about property rights and systems of white supremacy this was about evil.                                                                              

1803 Slavery was abolished in the Ohio territory and Ohio entered the Union as a free state. In the same year the U.S. purchased Louisiana from France, extending federal sovereignty to a poorly defined territory west of the Mississippi River;                                     

1804 U.S. took possession of the territory that is now the State of Missouri;                                                

1808 Importation of slaves declared illegal in the United States but slave owners continued to “breed their own”;  

1810 The domestic slave population within the United States grew to 1.1 million unpaid workers held against their will;                                        

1812 Louisiana entered the Union as a slave state;                                                                        

1816-1861 14 new states entered the Union; 9 Free States, 5 Slave States;                                         

1820 Congress admitted Missouri as a slave state expanding the controversy between free and slave states. The Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state thus maintaining the balance between free and slave states. The Missouri Compromise dictated no territories above 36 degrees by 30 degrees latitude could enter the Union as slave states, hence Missouri became the nexus between freedom and slavery;           

1820-1860 Slave rebellions included legal battles with 292 petitions filed in St. Louis courts alone-the most famous (or infamous), the 11-year Dred Scott case stretching from 1846-1858, illustrated many of the moral and ethical flaws in U.S. jurisprudence. So no, Missouri’s racial “issues” didn’t begin in Ferguson with Michael Brown.

DRED SCOTT v. SANFORD, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), aka THE DRED SCOTT CASE                                                  1799 Dred Scott was born in Virginia, a slave to the Peter Blow family;                                                                

1830 The Blow family moved to St. Louis and sold then 31 year-old Dred Scott to Dr. Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks.  During the next 12 years Mr. Scott traveled with Dr. Emerson to Illinois and the Wisconsin territory –where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise.  Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, and they had two children;                                                                          

1842 The Scott family returned to St. Louis with the doctor and his wife Irene;                                                     

1843 The doctor died and his widow “rented” Mr. and Mrs. Dred Scott and their children to other people;              

1846 Dred Scott, then 46, and his wife sued Irene for their freedom in St. Louis Circuit Court;                          

1847 The St. Louis Circuit Court ruled in favor of Irene Emerson;                                                                            

1850 The Scotts re-filed and a jury ruled in their favor based on their past residence in the free territories of Wisconsin and Illinois.  Dred Scott was then 51;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             1852 Irene Emerson appealed to Missouri Supreme Court and won. The Scott family was returned to slavery.                                                                                                                                                                                           1853 Dred Scott filed in U.S. Federal Court in St. Louis and again lost;                                                            

1856 Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. The Court held (a) Scott was NOT a U.S. citizen; (b) Scott was NOT eligible to sue in federal court; (c) Scott was NOT a person, he was personal property and was NEVER free. The Court held the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in prohibiting slavery in the territories (Side Note: Beware of strict constitutional constructionists!)                                                                      

1857 Irene Emerson remarried, her new husband opposed slavery so she “returned” the Scott family to the Blow family, their original “owners” and the Blow family “gave” the Scott family their freedom;                                                                                                                                                                                                                             1858 Dred Scott died of Tuberculosis.  He was 59 years old;                                                                             

1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President.  There were now 3.9 million enslaved people in the United States. South Carolina seceded from the Union to preserve its right as a sovereign state to continue the economic and social tradition of chattel slavery, i.e., to allow some persons to enrich themselves through the cruel enslavement and uncompensated labor of others. Thus began the Civil War.                                                      

1862 As a military strategy Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the seceding states, effective January 1, 1863.

INTRODUCTION TO LINCOLN’S EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION                                                                   Lincoln and the North entered the war to preserve the Union rather than to free the slaves or to provide Americans of African descent, whether slave or free with the full rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship. However within a relatively short time emancipation became an accepted war aim. Neither Congress nor the president knew exactly what constitutional powers they had in this area; according to the Dred Scott decision, they had none. But Lincoln believed that the Constitution gave the Union whatever powers it needed to preserve itself, and that he, as commander-in-chief, had the authority to use those powers at his discretion.

In the fall of 1862 after the Union army victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, warning that on January 1, 1863, he would free all slaves in seceding states still in rebellion. Intended as a war and propaganda measure, the Emancipation Proclamation had more symbolic than real impact because the federal government had no means to enforce it at the time. But the document clearly and irrevocably notified the South and the world that the war was being fought not just to preserve the Union, but to put an end to the “peculiar institution”. Eventually, as Union armies occupied more and more southern territory, the Proclamation turned into reality, as thousands of slaves were set free by the advancing federal troops.

The Emancipation Proclamation ended de jure or legal slavery within the southern states that seceded from the Union.  The Union victory expanded that de jure emancipation across the nation.  However de facto slavery persisted during Reconstruction from 1863-1877, and debt bondage also known as sharecropping, maintained de facto slave conditions with supporting court rulings from 1903-1944. And with the intersection of policies enacted through inequitable school funding, the “War on Drugs”, militarized policing and mass incarceration de facto racial caste systems persist.

Yet despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts, despite almost 400 years of enslavement, despite President Lincoln’s halfhearted efforts at emancipation-Jesus Christ delivered us out of de jure bondage 154 years ago. More than that, He has allowed us to illustrate His teachings of forgiveness and reconciliation as we continue to heal here in the land of our multi-generational nativity and oppression.

The Watch Night Services celebrated in Black communities today can be traced to those first gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as Freedom’s Eve.  All across this nation, Blacks came together in churches and private homes anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. At the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. There were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people (our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ parents, aunts and uncles) fell to their knees and thanked God.  We, Americans of the original African diaspora, the most visible and viable group of involuntary immigrants, upon whose backs and in whose blood all Americans and later immigrants from around the world have stood and prospered, we have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year.  We are here thanking God for His marvelous works and we are sharing this knowledge with our children so that they will not be destroyed for lack of knowledge. Hosea 4:6.  

But along with thanksgiving, our coming together and recounting His mighty works is an act of obedience.  God is a jealous God and He demands at least as much recognition and acknowledgement from us, the Redeemed, as He did from the children of Israel.  And when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you? Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Deuteronomy 6:20.

In 2010 we commemorated 100 years of continuous worship here at The Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith. For my family, that’s five generations, and I am thankful for such an amazing blessing!-but what I find even more amazing is the fact that when my maternal great-grandparents, Hattie and Edward Edwards, migrated to Columbus from Bluefield, West Virginia and joined others of like precious faith in this congregation, slavery had only been abolished for 48 years. Based on their own exodus our biological and spiritual parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taught us to watch as well as pray citing Matthew 7:21-23 “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

Through their experiences they were able to caution us how to recognize and engage the religious hypocrites described in 2 Timothy 3:5 as those  “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” We must never fail to pass on this knowledge to our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren less they be ignorant of the truth of Luke 6:44 for “…every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.” or that of Galatians 5:22-23 “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”  

In 1863, 154 years ago, we were a people cruelly enslaved and while neither we nor this nation are fully healed we have been delivered, we have enriched this nation beyond measure and we can say This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. Psalm 118:23