In the early part of the 20th century, Mr. and Mrs. William and May Morgan used a replica of a church built onto a truck chassis to serve as a prop and a sound stage to bring the Gospel message to Boston Common. In the 1920s and ’30s, thousands gathered to hear preaching on the Common from this Little Church on Wheels.
In 1938, Mrs. Morgan decided to move the ministry indoors at 10 Columbus Square in Boston’s South End, and named the new ministry the Emmanuel Gospel Center. Dedication took place on October 3. Sidney Marsh was the Center’s first superintendent. Then, from 1939 to 1944, Mr. and Mrs. Archy Ringer served as superintendents. During the Center’s early years, leaders from the nearby Presbyterian Church provided guidance and assistance. Dr. Jack Mark, for example, was president of the Board from 1941 to 1976. In October 1947, the Emmanuel Gospel Center moved to larger facilities at 84 West Dedham Street. For 25 years, the ministry offered church services every night to the working poor of Boston’s South End, along with Sunday School classes for children and youth, and a ministry to the elderly.
In 1964, a young couple named Doug and Judy Hall came to Boston while Doug was attending Gordon Divinity School, now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. They had hopes to become missionaries to India, but in the meantime, they wanted to serve “in a job no one else wanted.” In August of that year, Doug accepted the position of superintendent of the Center, with responsibilities for everything from preaching to fixing the plumbing.
Initially, Doug and Judy continued the original program of the Center. As part of the mission tradition at the time, pastors from different churches in Greater Boston came to the Center to lead church services every night of the week. A small group of people in the neighborhood came regularly, considering the Center their spiritual home. Several years after the Halls arrived, something very unusual happened when an invited church from the neighborhood, the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, brought not only their pastor, but their robed choir and their entire congregation. They didn’t want to hold a service for the poor, they wanted to have church with their brothers and sisters. This and other events at that time taught Doug and Judy that an indigenous local church ministering to people in their own community provides a far more effective approach to urban ministry than a neighborhood mission.
As the Halls gradually became aware of developing, vibrant churches all over Boston, Emmanuel Gospel Center changed its strategy from primarily direct, one-on-one ministry to the poor in their neighborhood, to a city-wide service center working to provide support and capacity to the growing numbers of churches in the city's poorest neighborhoods. In 1971, the Center helped plant a church, the South End Neighborhood Church of Emmanuel, to effectively serve the neighbors. At the same time, the Center’s ministries began to expand to serve many churches across the city.