Watch Night: The Covenant Service

In 1663 Puritan pastor and divine Richard Alleine published Vindiciae Pietatis: or, A Vindication of Godliness in the Greater Strictness and Spirituality of It. Anglican priest and evangelist John Wesley republished Alleine’s work in his A Christian Library in 1753, and on August 11, 1755, used a chapter from the book, “Application of the Whole”, in what was probably the first celebration of the Covenant Service in the Methodist movement.

According to The United Methodist Book of Worship,

The heart of the service, focused in the Covenant Prayer, requires persons to commit themselves to God. This covenant is serious and assumes adequate preparation for and continual response to the covenant.

As the annual Covenant Service developed in the Methodist societies of England, the service was conducted whenever Wesley visited a Methodist society around the country, while in London the service was usually held on New Year’s Day. In later years, the Covenant Service came most commonly to be held on New Year’s Day or Eve. When celebrated on New Year’s Eve, it came to be called a “Watch Night Service”, would often last three hours or longer, and included hymn singing and appropriate readings from Scripture.

The Watch Night Service became a fixture of rural churches, both Baptist and Methodist, across the South. Many churches, particularly African-American Methodist and Baptist churches, still celebrate Watch Night services, though the practice has waned in other churches. My Baptist mother recalls, from four or more decades past, three-hour Watch Night services of hymn singing, praying, Scripture reading, and occasionally a sermon, lasting from 9 o’clock until midnight. (The entire congregation attended, including the children – at least until the days when nurseries for children became usual. I have vague memories of these Watch Night services from my early childhood – from knowing they were happening, not from attending them, but the practice died in my home church when I was quite young.)

While we renew our commitment to the New Covenant with every baptism and with every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, it seems fitting on New Year’s Eve, on the Eve of the festival of the Holy Name of Jesus when we celebrate our Lord’s submission to the Law (“on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” Leviticus 12:3), we should renew our covenant commitment as well.

The following text, based on Wesley’s Covenant Service, is taken from the Book of Common Worship (1962) of the Church of South India. (In the CSI, January 1 is designated “The Day of the Covenant”.) In this abbreviation of the South Indian Covenant Service I have included the collect, lessons from that service, substituting for that liturgy’s Gospel reading the Gospel appointed for the Holy Name of Jesus (known in previous prayerbooks as “The Circumcision of Christ”), and the section of the service called “The Covenant”.

Collect

O God, who has appointed our Lord Jesus Christ as Mediator of a new covenant, grant us grace, we beseech thee, to draw near with fullness of faith and join ourselves in a perpetual covenant to thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lesson
Jeremiah 31:31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Epistle
Hebrews 12:22-25a

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!

Gospel
Luke 2:15-21

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

THE COVENANT

And now, beloved, let us with all our heart renew our part in the covenant that God has made with his people, and take the yoke of Christ upon us.

This taking of his yoke means that we are heartily content that he should appoint us our place and work, and that he alone should be our reward.

Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, other bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, other are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is assuredly given us in Christ, who strengthenth us.

Therefore let us make the covenant of God our own. Let us engage our heart to the Lord, and resolve in his strength never to go back.

Being thus prepared, let us now, in sincere dependence on his grace and trusting in his promises, yield ourselves anew to him, meekly kneeling upon our knees.

All kneel.

The minister says in the name of all:

O Lord God, Holy Father, who has called us through Christ to be partakers in this gracious covenant, we take upon ourselves, for love of thee, to seek and do thy perfect will. We are no longer our own, but thine.

Here all the people join.

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

4 Responses to “Watch Night: The Covenant Service”

  1. The Last Calvinist Methodist Says:

    What a delight to read this. I am especially fond of Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer” and keep a copy of it on my nightstand as a reminder that it is His will, and not mine, to be done.

    Additionally, I have copied and inserted the following to show that there are still ‘Watch Night” services in this part of the country.

    Mon
    31
    Watch Night Services

    7:00 PM
    Cotile Baptist Church will be holding Watch Night Services on Dec. 31 The Pine Ridge Quartet … (more)

    Watch Night Services
    7:00 PM – 12:00 AM
    Supper served from 7 to 8. From 8 to midnight: Singing, special music, testimonies & special gues… (more)
    Categories: Church/Religious, Special Services
    New Sunrise Baptist Church
    Otis, LA

    Watch Night Service
    8:00 PM – 12:00 AM
    8 p.m.-midnight, Air Base Road Baptist Church, 2220 Air Base Road, Alexandria. Call (318) 448-840… (more)
    Categories: Church/Religious, Special Services
    Air Base Road Baptist Church
    Alexandria, LA

    9:00 PM
    New Bethel Community Baptist Church will combine services with England Park Baptist Church, Leban… (more)
    Categories: Church/Religious, Special Services
    New Bethel Community Baptist Church
    Alexandria, LA

    Watch Night Services
    9:30 PM
    Watch Night Services will be held at The Rose of Sharon Baptist Church Monday, December 31, 2007 … (more)
    Categories: Church/Religious, Special Services
    Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church
    Alexandria, LA

    Watch Night Praise and Worship Fellowship
    10:00 PM
    PRAISE AND WORSHIP FELLOWSHIP (more)
    Categories: Church/Religious, Special Services
    Mt Zion Missionary Baptist Church
    Alexandria, LA

    Unfortunately, none at any Methodist churches (including my own) of which I am aware.

    Peace my friend.

    • Jon Thompson Says:

      “Last Calvinist Methodist” – you may not be a dying breed. My family and I joined our local Methodist Church about a year ago; I am Southern Baptist pastor not presently pastoring a church, and my children were drawn to the local Methodist church’s youth program. If it helps, you now have company as a Calvinist Methodist. Peace & Grace brother.

  2. confessingreader Says:

    That’s excellent, LCM! Glad to see that some churches are still holding Watch Night services.

    I agree that Wesley’s Covenant Prayer is profoundly moving – and not a little unsettling, even disturbing, in its import, hence (I think) the admonition in the Book of Worship. But what practice for holiness, and a meditation on “your will be done”, this prayer is.

  3. Best Watch Night Service | Rev. Eric Foley Says:

    [...] fond of Wesley’s own service, though I like the treatment the Confessing Reader gives it here. I think my lack of enthusiasm for the service is less related to the service itself and more [...]

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