Material History of American Religion Project

The Tabernacle Infirmary

A distinctive mark of American society is the wide variety of non-profit organizations and institutions, often associated with religious communities. These non-profits provide services to members and to the general public. They help to weave the civil society that makes up American culture.

Historians of American religion have focused their attention on churches, denominations, and movements, but often have ignored the development of religion-related non-profit organizations. How do such institutions come to be? Who inspires them, and why? How are they sustained, and how are they destroyed? The project, particularly in the work of director James Hudnut-Beumler, is exploring the "organizational ecology" that helps give rise to such institutions. We have been looking at the histories of these institutions in several communities, identifying common themes in their development.

One example is Georgia Baptist Medical Center, a leading hospital on the edge of downtown Atlanta. It was founded as the Tabernacle Infirmary just after the turn of the century. The founder was Dr. Len G. Broughton, a physician and pastor of the Third Baptist Church, also known as the Baptist Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was an institutional church, with a building and program designed to serve the needs of its members and neighbors. In addition to the infirmary, the church helped to found a home for helpless women and children, a girl’s dormitory and school, and an employment bureau. The building at one time also housed the origins of what is now Georgia State University. All of these institutions still thrive—the Georgia Baptist Association in 1913 purchased the hospital, and sold it to Tenet HealthSystem in 1997—but the church, alas, does not. Its building is now a rock club across from Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta.

This  document is Dr. Broughton’s narrative, written some decades later, of the infirmary’s founding. His ego is evident as he plays a central role in the infirmary’s early life. This is the case of an entrepreneur coming up with the idea and making it happen. There’s no doubt he’s the hero of his story—see his story of how he got funding for the laundry. Yet Broughton clearly did not work alone—note also the important role of women in founding and funding the hospital, even when clergymen and doctors let him down. Note, finally, the last sentence where he grudgingly shares credit with his wife.


The Georgia Baptist Hospital was started on Thanksgiving Day, 1901. How it came into being is this:

When I came to Atlanta as a pastor, I came here with the intention of starting a hospital in connection with my church. I had been a medical doctor, and came out of the medical profession into the ministry. Previous to coming to Atlanta, I was a pastor in Roanoke, Virginia, and had an idea of starting an institution of similar character there, but the city was not big enough, and the opportunity was not such as to promise the best results. At that time, there was no such thing as a Protestant Christian Hospital south of the Mason and Dixon line. St. Joseph’s was here in Atlanta, and that, of course, was Roman Catholic. There were a number of other Roman Catholic hospitals in the south.

My idea had been to found a Baptist institution largely for the training of nurses—that was my chief object in having a hospital. I realize that cities and states and other organizations could operate hospitals, as far as hospitals, pure and simple, were concerned; but my idea was to train Christian nurses, with emphasis on both Christian and nurse. I did not want either one to suffer in the absence of the other.

I had in the person of Dr. Howard Kelly, of John-Hopkins [sic] University, a warm personal friend; and he was in Atlanta attending a meeting of the Southern Medical Association. I had an engagement to dine with him, Mrs. Broughton and I, at the Kimball House. That afternoon I had a chill and went down with tonsilitis [sic], and Mrs. Broughton had to telephone Dr. Kelly that I could not come; and the result was, she invited him out to our house, and he came out and had dinner with us, or rather with her, and then spent the evening discussion with me this very business, on his own initiative.

Just prior to that time, he had read a paper, which had been universally commented on, before the Philadelphia Medical Society, on "Christian Training as Aid to Nurses," in which he discussed the benefits of Christian training to nurses. He presented a religious, psychological type of training. He had that article in his pocket. He took it out and read it aloud to me, and said: "I know you are interested in this work; why don’t you start such an institution? The South is a wonderful place for an institution of this kind, and south of Baltimore there is none."

"Well," I replied, "When I went into the ministry, this was one of the side lines of my ambition. I came to Atlanta definitely to do that thing in connection with my church, feeling that Atlanta was the medical center of the South." As you can imagine, the evening was spent in discussion of his proposition more than mine, because I had tonsilitis and, too, I was talking with Dr. Howard Kelly, and I could well afford to be silent when he talked.

Some time after that, I do not recall just how long, the church employed Miss Georgia Barrett, of Roanoke, Virginia; whose name should be perpetuated in connection with the hospital, for she cared for the first patients we had.

Miss Barrett was employed by our church to do missionary work among the "downs and outs." Down on Decatur Street, on the third or fourth floor of a building, she found two women who were literally Job like, covered with sores from their heads to their heels, from personal neglect and also disease. Miss Barrett reported to me, and I tried to get the police to take up the matter and put them in the Alms House. The Alms House did not take them, the police did not take them, and the devil would not have them, so they were left on my hands—as I have had lots of his products!

I went then to see these women. One of them at the time had a broken needle in her hip—a great big hypodermic needle—and I got that out myself. Grady Hospital was the only hospital in town, except St. Joseph’s, and there was no place to put these women.

Then I went down with a relapse of this tonsilitis, and could not get out of bed. My assistant, Mr. E.H. Peacock, went with Miss Barrett to see these women, and reported to me. I instructed him to go out and find a house. He found a house on Courtland Street, a five room cottage. It was a dilapidated sort of thing. I told him to rent it. I remember very well paying twenty-five dollars rent for it, and out of my own pocket. It was the last dollar I had!

The next morning I got up, and it was Thanksgiving Day. I called a meeting of a number of women, and among them was Mrs. W.H. Wiggs, who se name should never perish from the memory of the hospital. There should be a memorial erected to her, for her faithfulness to that institution. She was not a member of my church, and at the time not a resident of Atlanta. God only knows what she meant to us in money and service in those early days and on so long as we were connected with the work. I asked her to meet with us. We had twelve or fourteen women, and met in that house. I told them what I proposed to do—that I proposed to put those women in that house and get a nurse for them. As unsanitary as it all appeared to be, that was really the beginning of the hospital.

The women got busy and spent that Thanksgiving Day in scrubbing up the place and putting in second hand furniture, such as they could get. They had clean beds and clean linen, and we brought those women in there that night. We kept them there, and one was cured and later went back to her parents. Of course I have never known her name. The other one ran away from the place; she vanished, and I have never known was became of her; but I know she must have died long, long ago—she must have.

The women who met with me were called "A Board of Lady Managers," and included Mrs. J.W. Autry, Mrs. Charles Smith, and Mrs. Zede Smith. Mrs. W.H. Wiggs was president of that group and remained so until her death. The building over on the corner of Luckie and Bartow was built before she died.

We went from that first place to a larger building up on Spring Street, between Luckie and Marietta, or in that locality. We only stayed there a short while, but we went into real hospital work in that building. A staff of Doctors was formed, Dr. E.C. Davis being the first President of the staff in that institution. From first to last, many of the doctors were with us there who are now prominent in surgery and medicine at Georgia Baptist Hospital. Many of them served their internship there, among whom were Dr. T.C. Davison and Dr. J.T. Floyd.

We went from there very shortly to a place on Luckie Street, where the Y.M.C.A. now is. We have two four story buildings there. We finally hooked them together and made them into one. The corner building served as a Nurses’ Home.

In the meantime, we organized the Baptist Tabernacle Infirmary Training School for Nurses, and secured a Charter for it. That Training School is responsible for the three years’ course in the schools of nursing today. We succeeded in getting a law passed by the Georgia State Association of Graduate Nurses and the Legislature, requiring three years; and all the time I had in mind the training of Christian nurses with a view of missionary work at home and in foreign fields.

We remained in that place on Luckie Street until we went on the corner of Bartow and Luckie, where we bought ground and built our own institution. We later built the Tabernacle by the side of it. The same janitor service served for both. I had organized in the meantime, soon after I came to Atlanta, the Tabernacle Church at the old location, which was two blocks down on Luckie Street. That building is still there and is used for a manufacturing plant.

When this hospital was first organized, I called together every Baptist pastor and every Baptist doctor that we had in Atlanta. Very few of them are here now, either pastors or doctors. I called them to a meeting at the First Baptist Church, that was located where the post office now, and presented to them my conception of a Christian hospital, and the training of Baptist Christian nurses for home work and foreign work. We discussed that thing for two or three nights, and the only doctor who favored it at that time was Dr. E.C. Davis, who was then a young man. I was the only pastor who favored it, so they voted against undertaking it.

This happened just two weeks before the Thanksgiving Day of which I had already spoken. I said, well, I have those women on my hands down there, and on Thanksgiving Day I am going to start my hospital. And I did. Of course they did not take very much interest in it, which was natural, because they knew nothing about such an institution until they got it.

One of the lines of study that we had was that every girl graduating from the Baptist Tabernacle Infirmary had a certificate on the Book of Romans, as a basis of all Christian theology, which I taught.

The demand for visitation, as you can see, naturally became very heavy for me, being the only pastor connected with the hospital, and I could not what I wanted to do. It came to my mind one night to inaugurate a telephone system. The Tabernacle at that time was two blocks away from where it now stands. I called together an electrician or two and present my proposition to them, and they told me that it was feasible to install such a telephone system as I indicated. I bought the apparatus and paid for it myself, like I did everything else that I had money to pay for. I traveled and lectured from California to Calcutta, and everything that I every had and got, everything, was put into that hospital and Tabernacle. It is no little expense to start a hospital, no matter how small it is. It means money, money, money.

The telephone system I had installed connected my pulpit in the Tabernacle with each patient’s bed in the Infirmary, with a main switch on each floor. The nurse in charge of each floor would know from the doctor whether to connect or not with this and that patient; and if allowed to connect up, she would put the little ear piece over the patient’s head at the time for our service, and the patient could hear the prayers, songs, announcements and sermon as clearly as we can hear over the radio.

A funny thing happened about that, which is a joke I love. Dr. Worth Yankey was at that time our only intern. He was full of wit, but just as dry, apparently, as could be. That night we turned that thing on at the Tabernacle. I did not go to the Infirmary after the service was over, but went on home and waited until the next morning to get a full report. I had heard that night that it worked perfectly, so that was enough, and I went to bed. Next morning, as I went in, I met Dr. Yankey, and I said: "Yankey, how did my trick work last night?" He said: "Dr. Broughton, that is the slickest trick you ever invented in your life. Out of all the slick tricks you have ever originated, that heads the list." I said, "Why?" He said, "You know Sundays are the hardest days for patients to have, and Sunday nights it is impossible to get them to go to sleep; but last night we connected them up with your sermon and they all dropped off to sleep in five minutes." That became a classic joke among the preachers and doctors. It was used in the toasts and everything.

When we moved to the present Tabernacle, we moved the telephone with it, and it remained there until I left to Atlanta and moved to my pastorate in London, England. When I went to the pastorate of Christ Church, London, by the advice of the group of men associated with me, my Advisory Board and Staff, I turned the hospital over to the Baptists of Georgia, the Georgia Baptist State Convention. They assumed the obligation on the property, which was about $75,000.00 all told. We had capacity of about 100 beds, including ward beds.

Here is another incident which shows how things were brought to pass in those days: I had been preaching in London for two months, and the night before I was to leave, I was a guest in the home of a member of that church, who was one of the richest men of the land, the man who built the tunnel under the Alps and under the Andes. He was a big man. I spent the night in his home. I was to sail the next day.

We had no laundry in the hospital, and we needed a laundry; so I tried my best that night to engage him in talking about a laundry, or to get his mind on a laundry. The next morning when I had dressed and gone down to the library, he met me there, and said: "What do you need for that hospital you have over there?" (He had given us a lantern with pictures for the church. I have the slides now.) I said: "We need a laundry; I tried to get you to talk about a laundry last night, but you would not talk about it." He said, "How much would it take to put in a laundry?" I said, "Not less than $2,500.00." He said, "I am not going to give you $2,500.00 for that laundry." I said, "Well, don’t do it." Later in the morning, when I had gone back to my hotel, he gave me a check for $2,500.00. "This is not for the laundry," he said, "this is to pay for a home for you to live in." I said, "May I use it as I please?" "No," he said, "it is to pay for a home." Finally, however, he agreed that I could put it as a loan on a home, and spend it for a laundry to be put in the basement of the hospital. I borrowed it from myself, and have never paid it back!

That is the history of the beginning of the Georgia Baptist Hospital. I suppose if I should gather up all the heart aches I have had over that place, and could liquefy them, I would have enough to fill a swimming pool.

As I said before, if you do not think it takes a lot of thought and money to conceive and start going a hospital, just try one.

During the time I was connected with this hospital, five of our nurses were sent to China. One of them died over there.

As part of their training, the nurses of the Tabernacle Infirmary were sent out into the homes of the city, that they might have experience in home nursing. They were sent to the homes of the poor people, and to the homes of the richest people, and thus they received a practical insight of life at its worst and at its best, which they could not have obtained in any other way, before they graduated. We required them to do that type of work, and it is still my conviction that it should be included in a nurse’s course of training.

When I relinquished my work here to leave Atlanta, the doctors gave me a breakfast at the Georgian Terrace hotel; and that was one time that all my ambitions and talents were stressed so strong that I fainted!

In conclusion, I want to say that when I was making and carrying out all these plans, Mrs. Broughton had her part in it.

Dr. Broughton's narrative comes from the collection of the Atlanta History Center.

Return to the documents page

Return to the project home page