New Year: the history of Watch Night

New Year is traditionally associated by many with parties, alcohol, music and merriment. For many of our Christian ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries, the night was marked by specific church gatherings, known as ‘Watch Night’ services. These services provided a structured opportunity, with hymns and Bible readings, for Christians to reflect on their past twelve months and to resolve to live a better life in the new year.

The watch night services, also known as covenant renewal services, were instituted by John Wesley, the theologian who led the revival movement known as Methodism. He held the first watch night on New Year’s Eve in 1755. They often feature or end with Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, whose words can connect us with ancestors who spoke them annually across centuries past.

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 by 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.

Portrait by William Hamilton, 1788. Currently on display in Wesley's house, City Road, London.

Islington Gazette, 3 January 1863, page 2

Wesley based the idea of the Watch Night service on the concept of a Watch Night gathering for prayer that could continue long into the night. The New Year’s tradition continues in Methodist (and other denominations’) churches today, but more advertisements for watch night services can be found in Victorian newspapers, such as the above example from the Islington Gazette, than in current media.

John’s brother Charles Welsey wrote the covenant hymn, "Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine," especially for the Watch Night service by Charles Wesley. The full service can be found in The (Methodist) Book of Worship as ‘An Order of Worship for Such as Would Enter Into or Renew Their Covenant with God - For Use in a Watch Night Service, on the First Sunday of the Year, or Other Occasion.’ While most churches practise Watch Night on New Year’s Eve, some observe the covenant service on New Year's Day. This focuses on worshippers renewing the covenant of response to the grace of God in Christ.

In 1870, James Ewing Ritchie wrote of Watch Night in his The Religious Life of London), noting of the sect: 

‘In the institution of the watch-night it boldly struck out a new path for itself. In publicly setting apart the last fleeting moments of the old year and the first of the new to penitence, and special prayer, and stirring appeal, and fresh resolve, it has set an example which other sects are preparing to follow.’

The Society holds a number of useful records for researching Methodist ancestors. Society members can access a digital copy of the book, The Story of Congregationalism in Surrey , originally published by James Clarke & Co. in 1908. A copy is held in the Society's Library (accession 5228), and has been digitised on SoG Data Online.

  • James Ewing Ritchie, The Religious Life of London (1870)
  • Alan K. Waltz, A Dictionary for United Methodists (Abingdon Press, 1991)
  • The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992)
  • The Story of Congregationalism in Surrey (James Clarke & Co, 1908)

Notes and comments

Please contact Emma Jolly for more information about this article

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