A Methodist tradition I cherish is the Watch Night service. It all began, as John Wesley recounts in his Short History of the People called Methodists (1781),1 on the evening of August 11 1755 in the French church of Spitalfields in London (that is, in the "Old French Church" on Grey Eagle Street, which, after acquisition, became the base for Wesleyan expansion in London's East End). 1,800 people were in attendance. Huguenots whose ancestors had escaped France in the wake of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (Oct 22 1685) had built the chapel. Like the Huguenots who built the chapel, the early Methodists knew themselves to be pilgrims and strangers in a strange land. They were acutely aware that we have nothing on earth to call our own except the relationship we nurture with the good, the true, and the beautiful, a relationship they cultivated in the Christ of God encountered in worship and the preaching of the Word.
In reference to that occasion in his Journal, John Wesley, who spearheaded the Methodist movement out of commitment to the spiritually homeless, reports that he adapted a treatise of the Puritan Richard_Alleine, "that blessed man," for the purposes of a covenant service.2 Sensing the value, Wesley persisted in holding covenant services on subsequent rounds among the Methodist societies. 25 years later, 42 years into the revival (it began in 1738), he published Directions for Renewing Our Covenant With God (1780). In the alarm and call, in the focus on covenant, the influence of Puritan theology is clear.3 Covenant prayer has been a feature of Watch Night services ever since.
Watch Night services are celebrated on New Year’s Eve or the first Sunday of the New Year by Methodist and Baptist congregations in various parts of the world. Similar services are part of the tradition of Moravians, Lutherans, and the Church of Scotland.
A précis of Wesley's covenant prayer appears as #607 in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, previously printed in the 1936 edition of the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, and in the Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India, 1962.4 It goes like this.
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 by 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.
Devotion of this kind is found in prayer around the world in which an I-Thou relationship with providence is sought out. Except for the Trinitarian formula, analogous devotion to a personal God is typical of the bhakti movement associated with monotheistic Hinduism. From the standpoint of one monotheism vis-à-vis another, the fact might well be considered a manifestation of common grace. This is not to say that "God" is identical across the monotheisms of the world. On the contrary, as Stephen Prothero has argued, God is Not One.5 Theological differences are not a matter of indifference.
I have fond memories of Watch Night services among Italian Methodists. In the kitchen and courtyard of the Methodist Church of Scicli in the province of Ragusa, Sicily, it was a time of joy and anticipation and fellowship over food – what else among Methodists? Dancing too, in Liberia, as my colleague Jakes Voker of Wesley United Methodist Church (Oshkosh WI) points out to me. This side of the Atlantic, the first Watch Night service was held on Nov 1 1770, at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. The African-American community has always prized the Watch Night service.6
In the antebellum South, at the end of the year, slave owners would count up their property and if necessary sell slaves to pay debts. Slaves did not always know on New Year’s Eve if they would stay together. New Year’s Eve was sometimes the last night a family of slaves remained united. The Covenant Prayer, re-read with that precipice in mind, is powerful.
Watch Night was overlaid with new significance during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; it was to take effect on January 1, 1863. Slaves sat up the night before, Freedom’s Eve, waiting for freedom, if only haltingly and incompletely, to arrive at midnight. The Emancipation Proclamation continues to be read at Watch Night services in history-conscious African-American churches.
From a phenomenological and theological point of view, covenant prayer in the style of Alleine and Wesley is a response to the anticipated initiative of a provident God. It is hope expressed in the language of dedication.
James Weldon Johnson, an African-American author and hymn-writer who deserves to be better known, fuses the language of Jewish scripture with that of an African storytelling register to describe God's creation of man:
God sat down on the side of a hill where he could think. God thought and he thought until he thought, "I'll make me a man." Up from the bed of the river God scooped the clay, and by the bank of the river he kneeled him down and there the great God Almighty who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand, this great God like a mammy bending over her baby kneeled down in the dust, toiling over a lump of clay till he shaped it in his own image. Then into it he blew the breath of life and the man became a living soul.7
The rielaboration of language and themes from Genesis 1 and 2 is clear. Elsewhere in Jewish scripture, the same God of whom Johnson sings promises that the time will come in which the words of his law will be written on the flesh of the heart of the house of Israel (Jer 31:33):8
כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית
אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל
אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם
[וְ]נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם
וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים
וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ־לִי לְעָם׃
For this is the covenant
I will make with the house of Israel:
"After those days,"
- this is the word of the LORD -
"I will put my law within them,
I will write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they shall be my people."
In a Christian frame of reference, covenant prayer according to the model of Alleine and Wesley is easily understood as one way in which the promise of Jer 31:33, and the "I will be your God and you will be my people" formula, receives fulfillment. Similarly, it is easily understood as an identity-generating response to the prediction of Jer 50:5:
צִיּוֹן יִשְׁאָלוּ דֶּרֶךְ
[וּבָ]אוּ וְנִלְווּ אֶל־יְהוָה
בְּרִית עוֹלָם לֹא תִשָּׁכֵחַ
They shall ask the way to Zion
with their faces turned toward it;
They will come away and join themselves to the LORD
in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten.
In the register adopted by Johnson, "God thought and he thought until he thought, 'I'll make me a man on whose heart my intentions are written.' The great God Almighty who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, who flung the stars to the far corner of the night, touches fingers to lips like a teacher of the mute, and gives his pupil a prayer to pray."
1 Online here.
2 In his journal entry for Aug 6, 1755, Wesley wrote: "I mentioned to the congregation another means of increasing serious religion, which has been frequently practiced by our forefathers and attended with eminent blessing; namely, the joining in a covenant to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul. I explained this for several mornings following, and on Friday, many of us kept a fast to the Lord, beseeching Him to give us wisdom and strength, to promise to the Lord our God and keep it." On Monday, Aug 11: "I explained once more the nature of such an engagement, and the manner of doing it acceptably to God. At six in the evening we met for that purpose, at the French church in Spitalfields. After I had recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, in the words of that blessed man, Richard Alleine, all the people stood up, in testimony of assent, to the number of about eighteen hundred persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever."
3 A first introduction to Richard Alleine is available in Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007). The relevant text: "Directions as to Prayer," in Richard [and Joseph] Alleine, Heaven Opened [the third part of Vindiciae pietatis, or, A vindication of godlinesse] (New York: American Tract Society, 1852 ), available in digital form here. Wesley's adaptation in Directions for Renewing Our Covenant With God (1780), pdf of the second edition (1781) here. Presentation: David Tripp, The Renewal of the Covenant in the Methodist Tradition (London: Epworth Press, 1969 [Appendix II, 177-188]). For an introduction to the movement of "evangelical Calvinism" on which John Wesley depended, more than neo-Calvinists and neo-Arminians are wont to admit, see Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism, 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). For a discussion of Wesley's dependence on Puritan sources, see Marion Jackson, “An Analysis of the Source of John Wesley’s ‘Directions for Renewing Our Covenant With God’”, Methodist History 30 (1992) 176-184. Further: Frank Baker, “The Beginnings of the Methodist Covenant Service” London Quarterly and Holborn Review 180 (1955) 215-220; Rupert Davies, “The Methodist Covenant Service” Theology 64 (1961) 62-68; William Parkes, “Watchnight, Covenant Service, and the Love-Feast in Early British Methodism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 32 (1997) 35-58, online here; Roger L. Hahn, Douglas S. Hardy, and Jason D. Lewis, "Wesley's Covenant Service: A Relational Practice Connecting Biblical Doctrine with Communal Formation," Didache: Faithful Teaching 10:2 (Spring 2011) web version here. Parkes's comment on the "Covenant Prayer" is to the point: "The Covenant Prayer is a highly truncated version of the original, but both the spirit and content of its essential obligations remain. We might ask whether there could ever be a deeper consecration" (op. cit., 58).
4 For the prayer in context of the covenant renewal service of the Church of South India, go here. A simplified version of the same prayer appears as part of "Wesely's Covenant Service" on page 291 of the 1992 United Methodist Book of Worship.
6 Thanks to Ann Brock for blogging on this.
7 James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking Press, 1959 ) 17-20; 20. Quoted by Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 163; and by James C. Howell, The Life We Claim (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005) Kindle Edition, Location 679.
8 For acute reflections on the covenant concept in Jeremiah 31, see Adrian Schenker, Das Neue am neuen Bund und das Alte am alten: Jer 31 in der hebräischen und griechischen Bibel, von der Textgeschichte zu Theologie, Synagoge und Kirche (Gottingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2006) partly available here.