Atlanta’s Tabernacle Baptist Church reached mega status more than a century ago

Tabernacle Baptist became Georgia's first megachurch under leadership of Pastor Len Broughton, a medical doctor


It was a fusion of the quality preaching and teaching of Spurgeon’s London Tabernacle, the evangelistic passion of a Moody crusade, and a rare conservative dose of the social gospel movement.

It was the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia’s first megachurch.

The pastor, Dr. Len Broughton, had begun a career in medicine 1885 in his native North Carolina after completing medical college in Kentucky. A skilled surgeon, he was recognized for performing one of the first appendectomies in the state. His life changed after he experienced a buggy accident and then contracted typhoid.

During his lengthy recovery, Broughton sensed a call to ministry.

The first two churches he led experienced dramatic evangelistic growth, and that was also the case at Atlanta’s Third Baptist Church when he arrived in 1897.

The church had already agreed in principle to relocate when Broughton arrived. But in 1899, when the congregation officially voted to move, a portion of the people chose to remain behind. Those who relocated with Broughton named their new church Tabernacle Baptist.

Property was purchased on Lucky Street which was strategically located between depots of two of the major railroad lines in Atlanta. Before the automobile, the railroads would bring in many people to worship at the Tabernacle and from across the South to attend its Bible conferences. The Bible conferences, which were hosted by the Tabernacle, became the second largest Bible conferences in the nation, second only to the Northfield Massachusetts conferences sponsored by D.L. Moody.

According to a biography of Broughton, published in a volume by The Christian Index in 1917, the church experienced rapid growth and established many new and innovate ministries. Broughton envisioned an institutional church, which was one whose ministries extended beyond its walls. It reflected an activism typically seen in what was known as the Social Gospel Movement. The liberal Social Gospel movement sought to meet people’s physical needs; the Tabernacle primarily focused on meeting people’s needs as an avenue for evangelism and discipleship. His vision was a ministry that was regional in scope, and it became international through its missions’ impact.

Some of the ministries developed by the Tabernacle between 1899 and 1912 included: housing for single women working in Atlanta, a medical clinic which became the Georgia Baptist Hospital, a job placement ministry, a night school (the first in Atlanta), Baptist School of Nursing, a home for unwed mothers, a Bible Institute, and the Bible Conferences.

In the area of evangelism, Broughton was never afraid to try something new if it reached people for Christ. At times his methods brought charges of “Arminianism,” but few could argue with the results. His influence was felt in Georgia and on the SBC level through his appeals for adopting evangelism “training” including using books by non-Baptist authors like R. A. Torrey (1856-1928). This reflected a shift from a stricter Calvinistic view of evangelism practiced by many 19th century Baptists who would have difficulty with the concept of “evangelism training” and some of the other methods of the Tabernacle.

The passion and vision of Broughton helped to give birth to Georgia’s first Megachurch, but it would also contribute to his departure in 1912. The church entered two major overlapping building programs leading to a financial crisis. By 1909 the church had grown from an initial membership of 300 to 2,000. The first building program was a new sanctuary which was completed in 1911. The auditorium was the largest of any type in the southeast seating over 2,500 people and included space for educational and other ministries.

In the meantime, the hospital ministry was growing, and a new building was constructed and completed in 1912. Broughton had solicited funds from other churches, the association, and other sources to support the hospital. They did not share the “industrial vision” of the Tabernacle with Broughton. Consequently, the church was facing foreclosure on both the sanctuary and hospital. Under this load, Broughton’s health, with which he had issues for years, once again became a concern. Broughton resigned in 1912 and moved to London where he became the Pastor of the historic Christ Church.

In 1913, the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to assume ownership of the hospital and its massive debt, which included a rapidly approaching deadline on a balloon note. This maintained the hospital as a ministry and allowed the Tabernacle to avoid foreclosure.  Broughton would briefly return to the Tabernacle in the late 1920’s as pastor for a few years before entering fulltime evangelistic/preaching ministry.

The Tabernacle without the hospital debt was able to meet the obligation on the sanctuary. The church continued to grow and thrive, hosting annual Bible Conferences and other ministries until the 1980’s. Some of the great preachers of the 20th century stood in the pulpit of the Tabernacle Bible Conferences including Billy Sunday, R.A. Torey, Billy Graham, Vance Havner, G. Campbell Morgan and many others.

In the 1980’s, a combination of “white flight,” competition from other downtown churches and growing urban churches led to a decline in membership. In 1991 the church voted to disband, sell the building and invest the funds from the liquidation of the property into other ministries.

For a season the Atlanta Baptist Tabernacle was the flagship of Georgia Baptist churches. Its sanctuary has been a music venue since the 1990’s Olympics were hosted by Atlanta. It leaves the legacy of Georgia’s first megachurch, the Georgia Baptist Hospital, and the Georgia Baptist Healthcare Foundation. It is a reminder that churches may have a season. It was once one of Georgia’s strongest churches and today it no longer exists as a congregation. Yet its ministry continues through the thousands who came to Christ and were discipled through its ministry. Only eternity will truly tell the full story of Georgia’s first megachurch.