On New Year's Eve, many African American churches in the United States hold prayer and worship services throughout the night. Just before midnight, the congregation bows their heads in silent prayer and meditation. At midnight, they ring in the New Year with hymns of praise and thanksgiving. These emotional, religious services are called watch meetings, which originated in the Methodist Church. Influenced by their English counterparts, the earliest American Methodists, late in the eighteenth century, preferred a tradition of nighttime prayer and service as an alternative to secular customs and amusements. Enslaved African Americans eventually adapted the Methodist practice of “watch nights” as a spiritual ritual to help them cope with the harsh realities of slavery. Today, watch night services are still a part of African American religion and culture.
One of the most notable watch meeting services took place on December 31, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which stated that emancipation would take effect on January 1, 1863, and end the institution of slavery in the Confederate states. Even though it did not end slavery throughout the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the entire purpose of the Civil War. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War changed from a war to preserve the Union into a war to end slavery. Anxious that Lincoln would keep his word, enslaved African Americans gathered on December 31, 1862, and prayed throughout the night for the proclamation's institution the very next day.
This carte-de-visite depicting the painting by William T. Carlton portrays a group of enslaved African Americans and one white woman on the night of December 31, 1862. A carte-de-visite was made by gluing a print or a photograph onto a card measuring about four to three inches. Cartes-de-visite were a very popular, inexpensive form of portraiture in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century. The focus of the painting is a white-haired man holding a pocket watch to symbolize the first minute of January 1, 1863, Emancipation Day. In July 1864, William Lloyd Garrison and other antislavery advocates sent the original painting to President Abraham Lincoln as a gift to honor the moment emancipation went into effect. This scene represents the many watch meetings that African Americans held on New Year's Eve 1862. The final end of slavery in the United States, however, did not come until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.
1. Why do you think William T. Carlton chose to paint this particular scene? Why do you think it was later reproduced on a carte-de-visite?
2. What other symbols, besides the pocket watch, catch your eye in this painting?
3. Why do you think Carlton included a handsomely dressed white woman in his painting? What do you think she represents?
4. What can this painting teach us about religion and African American culture during this time period?
1. Typically African Americans hold watch night services in order commemorate freedom and welcome the new year. Can you think of other events in our current history that might lead to a traditional watch night service?
The painting hangs in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, but was then his office where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The original painting was given as a gift from William Lloyd Garrison to President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and was removed from the White House after President Lincoln's assassination. Later, a White House curator found another version at a New York antique shop in 1975. Republicans presented this painting as a gift to the White House on the 200th anniversary of America's founding in 1976.
Holzer, Harold, ed. Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.
Kloss, William. Art in the White House: A Nation's Pride. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, 1992.
Merrill, Walter M, ed. Let the Oppressed Go Free: 1861–1867. Vol. 5, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield. American Methodist Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.