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. Some of these churches, particularly African-American Methodist and Baptist churches, still celebrate Watch Night services, though the practice has largely waned among other congregations. (I have noted that a few of the Baptist churches here around Chapel Hill and in Chatham County will be having Watch Night services this evening.) 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 and 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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 strengtheneth 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.
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.