January 31, 2021


An Introduction to Secularism and the Organ

January 31, 2021


An Introduction to Secularism and the Organ

The 1890 William Hill and Son organ at the Town Hall in Sydney, Australia.

The 1890 William Hill and Son organ at the Town Hall in Sydney, Australia.

The organ’s ability to adapt to both sacred and secular contexts have allowed it to thrive for more than two thousand years. From being an instrument for outdoor use in Western antiquity and the middle ages to its place in concert halls and theaters today, the idea that the organ is an instrument of Christian origin or somehow an instrument with a solely sacred identity is demonstrably untrue. The organ was used as an instrument for entertainment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European courts, the adornment of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Town Halls, demonstrating grandeur at world’s fairs, entertaining the rich and famous in the twentieth century1 and even at singular but nonetheless important and influential places such as the Wanamaker department stores in Philadelphia and New York, Balboa Park in San Diego, or the City Museum in St. Louis. The organ has occasionally even found itself right in the spotlight of popular culture such as its use in the early-twentieth century for the accompaniment of silent film. Despite clear precedent for the secular use of the organ, in most regions of the world, the organ is deeply rooted in its Christian identity because it is churches that provide organists with jobs, it is primarily churches that encourage organists to learn the organ, and it is frequently churches that are the biggest patrons of the organ.

Despite a wealth of historical and present-day examples of the organ used outside of Christian liturgies, almost no research related to the organ has engaged secularism. To address the future of the organ in a more secular society, my research critically reevaluates the organ through the lens of secularism and secular studies. While studying the organ from this perspective would be enlightening at any time, this research is especially urgent because secularization in Europe and North America poses one of the most serious problems the organ has ever faced.2 As churches close, especially in North America, organs are frequently left homeless or in complete disuse.3

This short essay is intended to serve as a summary of four areas of research related to secularism and the organ: (1) political secularism, the study of the relationships between the organ and governmental or other organizational structures; (2) secularization, the study of declining religious demographics and the affects this has on the organ; (3) individual and community secularity, the study of the appreciation or lack thereof of the organ in secular individuals and society; and (4) historical reevaluation, the critical reassessment of the organ’s history using secularism as a lens.

Political Secularism

The study of political secularism as it relates to the organ looks at how governmental and societal structures support or do not support the organ. These structures seriously impact the sustainment, growth, or decline of organ culture. Governments can either actively or passively implement policies that impact the organ. On one hand, a Christian government may dedicate tax money to the upkeep of churches and other religious artifacts. Secular governments, on the other hand, may provide no funding for the upkeep of religious edifices. There is, however, much gray area. In the United States, for instance, the preservation of most organs is out of reach of government spending because of its policies related to the “separation of church and state.” Another secular government, that of France, has a decidedly more involved hand when it comes to the preservation of religious heritage. Historic religious edifices in France built before 1905 are owned by the government, and more than 1,400 historic organs are protected under a division of the Ministère de la Culture, the Monuments Historiques. Local governments fund organ festivals which garner significant attention from the public, such as the annual festival Toulouse les orgues.

In addition to governmental structures for the funding of the arts and the preservation of cultural heritage, many countries have their own independent organizations and funding mechanisms. Some of these are large organizations like the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, which tasks itself with the preservation of Australia’s organ culture, while others are smaller in scope and are dedicated to the support of a single instrument. Some organizations are able to provide funding opportunities for certain organ-related activities and projects, while others simply promote the organ. In the United States, Partners for Sacred Places, a nonsectarian organization, works with historic sacred places to find funding solutions which often include the pairing of church congregations with arts organizations.


Secularization, the idea that religious affiliation will decline over time because of a series of historical events and trends, profoundly affects the organ. The secularization paradigm was a topic of heated scholarly debate in the second half of the twentieth century. Even now, it is frequently oversimplified and misunderstood. Withholding a summary of this debate and the finer points of understanding its influence and philosophical limits, its impact on the organ remains unchanged: declining trends in religious adherence and attendance in mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations of Christianity in Europe and North America are affecting the organ.4

In some places classical music is experiencing challenges of its own, and while the organ shares these struggles, secularization poses an additional problem for the organ. In recent history, churches, especially in North America and Europe, have been the primary patron of the organ, the main source for enticing new organists to learn to play the instrument, and the primary venue for repetitive opportunities for the public to hear the organ. In some places, secularization has meant that organs themselves are in danger of being destroyed. In others, it has meant that they lack a regular audience. Assuming the best-case scenario, that an instrument is saved after a congregation leaves a closed building, organs frequently lack new purposes that match or even come close to matching the frequency of their former weekly liturgical use.

In my studies, interviews, and regular travels, I frequently encounter the attitude, “well, we can’t save them all.” While this is most certainly true, if we resign ourselves to this thinking, we ignore the reality that it is not just our favorite instruments, the best of the best, the best players, the best halls, and the best acoustics that contribute to a culture of the organ. While organs will always be lost to time, secularization, especially in the United States, poses one of the most serious problems the organ has ever faced.5

The 1906 Estey Organ in “The Sanctuary” at Epsilon Spires, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA.

There are positive uses for organs in secularized churches. Epsilon Spires is an experimental arts venue in Brattleboro, Vermont which is home to a three-manual Estey organ. Their instrument has been featured in past programming, and, going forward, it promises to be a positive venue for the exploration of innovative ways to use the organ in a secular setting. Another former church, The Old Church Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon is a more traditional concert setting, and they regularly use their historic Hook and Hastings organ. The number of similar venues is growing, albeit slowly.

The 1906 Estey Organ in “The Sanctuary” at Epsilon Spires, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA.

In my research on secularization in the United States, one of the most serious issues I have identified with the use of the organ in former churches is that there are few to no educational opportunities related to the organ. Even though there are former churches that have found ways to use the organ in creative ways, because these venues (through no particular fault of their own) do not include educational initiatives related to the organ, new organists will likely not emerge.

A common thread for the future of secular studies related to the organ is that there is a serious need for more data, detailed or not. A more thorough catalogue of organs affected by secularization would be helpful. In the United States alone, there are potentially thousands of affected instruments. There are already organ databases around the world (many of which are listed in Vox Humana’s resources). These databases are primarily for gathering basic information such as the builder, year of construction, or organ specification, and they do not reveal anything about the instrument’s current or historical uses.

One productive cataloging study spearheaded by Partners for Sacred Places, “Playing and Preserving,” catalogued almost 50 at-risk organs throughout the Philadelphia area.6 Their research included taking photos, documenting stoplists, contributing information to the Organ Historical Society’s Pipe Organ Database, and, most notably, making recordings. In addition to the research phase of their work, they also assisted eleven congregations with a full “conditions assessment” of their instruments as well as help planning restoration and fundraising efforts. I have embarked on a similar ongoing project to catalogue the fate of organs in brewpubs housed in former church buildings in the United States’s Rust Belt region. This research has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but once it is complete, I will be able to tell the stories of a number of organs that have either been removed or still exist in former churches across the Rust Belt region.

A challenging aspect of this area of studies is the elusive nature of studying the brief closure period of a church—that is, the events immediately before and after the closure of a church. My research has shown that this transition period is critical in determining the future of the building’s organ. While I have often identified buildings in the process of losing their congregations, I have yet to be able to study the process of transition and how this affects the building’s organ. While one study of this process will yield little extrapolatable information, a collection of reports will undoubtedly tell us a lot about how the organ can better be promoted during these transitions.

One of the issues with the secularization paradigm is that it is Eurocentric and fails to account for complex religiosity and secularity trends in non-Western regions. This matters when studying secularization and the organ from a global perspective because certain concepts need to be applied with great caution when working outside of areas that the secularization paradigm addresses. Secularization as a concept is less useful in analyzing the organ in countries such as the Philippines where religious trends show minimal to no indication of decline, or China where the organ is less culturally connected to Christianity.

A lot of work still needs to be done to better understand the stories of organs that are lost to development projects, or stories of organs that find their home in a new arts facility, wedding venue, or bookstore. These will collectively tell us a lot about the future potential of the organ in secular venues. I will continue to visit secular organ festivals, events, secular locations with organs, and talk to as many people as possible. In addition to the scholarly value of these experiences, compiling compelling and engaging stories will do a lot to garner the interest of others.

Individual and Community Secularity

Studying the organ in relation to the secularity of individuals and their communities helps us understand how to promote the education of new organists, create jobs, encourage the building of new instruments for secular use, encourage the creation of new music for the organ, and promote the general appreciation for the organ and its music in secular society. Nonreligious people, those that self-identify “none” as their religion, are extremely diverse and, because of this, difficult to study. Their beliefs, habits, and obviously their aesthetic preferences vary wildly.7 Given the organ’s current cultural association with churches, it makes sense to start with this group when trying to reach completely new people.

My research has yet to seriously engage this area of studies. Future ethnographic research rather than surveys will prove particularly useful in gathering qualitative data because it will be immensely more helpful to know why or why not someone is interested in the organ, rather than simpler information like whether they have or have not been to an organ-related event. More specific studies could involve visiting secular social organizations like the Sunday Assembly, a nonreligious organization that meets to have a similar communal experience as religious people. There are countless other secular organizations that could be entry points for studies. However, while studies with this kind of predetermined parameters are tempting to conduct, most nonreligious people do not adhere to secular organizations, so it is imperative that these are balanced and placed in perspective.

There is a connection between secularization and individual and community secularity in European and North American countries. Studying the habits of secular people as they relate to the organ in these regions is different than studying it elsewhere. The number of organs that are in churches in these regions has created a need for more research because, as church congregations dwindle, the instruments themselves are frequently left silent. I hope that more knowledge in this area will inspire new ideas regarding the education of new organists and the creation of new jobs that pay a living wage.

Studying secular beliefs and habits in places outside of areas that have historically supported the organ is also important. The situation in Russia, for instance, is notable since the organ evolved and grew largely outside of Christian churches. The same, although much more recently, has occurred in some Asian countries such as China.

Historical Reevaluation

The organ’s future in a more secular society will benefit greatly from critical reevaluations of its history. It is untrue that the organ’s history is solely or even primarily Christian. Obvious examples of the secular use of the organ include the evolution of the theater organ for use accompanying silent films and large organs built for secular concert halls. There are also many less obvious examples such as the compositional outputs of such famous French composers as Louis Vierne and Charles Marie Widor, who while employed by the church, composed organ music for which the majority could easily be described as secular.8 Studying the history of the organ in this way creates a fresh starting point for exploring the future of the organ. However, while it is important to reconsider the organ and its repertoire from the past, we must be careful not to create a false dichotomy between the sacred and secular. The goal should not be to remove the sacred from the organ but rather to reveal the true multiplicity of its identity.


The problem is not that we do not know about secularism and the organ, it is that we do not tend to think of it through that lens. If we reframe our position and use secularism as a new standpoint, we can uncover new paths forward for the organ in twenty-first-century society. We need to destigmatize studying secularism and the organ; it does not amount to an insurrection against the sacred identity of the organ to study its secular identity and potential. We can support and advocate for great church music programs while also exploring other avenues and supporting secular endeavors. This need not be, as it so often seems on social media, an either-or situation. Despite its immovability, the organ has proven itself repeatedly as an extremely adaptive and flexible instrument. It needs the energy of its most enthusiastic proponents to continue to do so.



1. Rollin Smith, Pipe Organs of the Rich and Famous. Richmond (Virginia: Organ Historical Society Press, 2014). Return to text.

2. My first interdisciplinary study, “The Organ in ‘A Secular Age’: Secularization and the Organ in the United States,” draws a connection between secularism and the organ. See especially the introduction and Chapter 1. Return to text.

3. I made a rough estimation that 2,500 organs in the United States were affected due to the loss of church congregations between 2000 and 2010. Not all these instruments are left homeless or in complete disuse. See Meszler, “Assessing the Number of Organs Affected by Secularization,” 32–35. Return to text.

4. There are numerous social surveys that collect global religious data and analyze demographic changes over time. See, for instance, Pew Research Center. Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project (2012), Pew Research Center, here. Return to text.

5. See Meszler, Chapter 1. Return to text.

6. See Partners for Sacred Places. “Playing and Preserving.” Available here. Return to text.

7. See Jack David Eller, “Varieties of Secular Experience,” in The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, eds. Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 499-514; Phil Zuckerman, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).’ Phil Zuckerman, Society Without God (New York: New York University Press, 2008). Return to text.

8. For many more examples of the secular use of the organ throughout history, see Meszler, Chapter 2. Return to text.


Selected Bibliography

Arnold, Jonathan. Sacred Music in Secular Society. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2014.

Bakhle, Janaki. "Music as the Sound of the Secular.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, no. 1 (2008): 256–84. doi.org/10.1017/S0010417508000121.

Bullivant, Stephen and Michael Ruse, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University, 2015.

Cady, Linell E. and E Shakman Hurd, eds. Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds. Rethinking Secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Eller, Jack David. “Varieties of Secular Experience.” In The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, edited by Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook, 499–514. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Engelhardt, Jeffers and Philip V. Bohlman, eds. Resounding Transcendence: Transitions in Music, Religion, and Ritual. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Faulkner, Quentin. Wiser than Despair: the Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 1996. Reprint, Religious Affections Ministries, 2012.

Hirschkind, Charles. “Is there a Secular Body?” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011), 633–47. doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01116.x.

Meszler, Alexander Francis. “The Organ in ‘A Secular Age’: Secularization and the Organ in the United States.” DMA diss., Arizona State University, 2020.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Olson, Roger E., Craig D. Atwood, Frank S. Mead, and Samuel S. Hill. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. 14th ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018.

Partners for Sacred Places. “Playing and Preserving.” Partners for Sacred Places. sacredplaces.org/playing-and-preserving.

Pew Research Center. Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project (2012), Pew Research Center. www.globalreligiousfutures.org.

Royer, Emily. “Bless, O Lord, this Creature Beer: Analyzing the Adaptive Reuse of Historic Churches as Craft Breweries through Case Study Methodology.” Master’s thesis, Ball State University, 2018.

Smith, Graeme. A Short History of Secularism. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2008.

Smith, Tom W., Michael Davern, Jeremy Freese, and Stephen Morgan, General Social Surveys, 1972–2018 (2019). NORC at the University of Chicago. gssdataexplorer.norc.org.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2007.

Warner, Michael, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, eds. Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Williams, Peter. The Organ in Western Culture 750–1250. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Zuckerman, Phil. Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

Zuckerman, Phil and John R. Shook, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.


Alexander Meszler is an organist named one of The Diapason’s “20 under 30.” His performances and research aim to inspire new perspectives on the organ and its capabilities beyond the liturgy. With Kimberly Marshall, he co-created “Walls of Sound: The Ecology of the Borderlands" which brought together collaborators from across the disciplines of music, science, theater, art, and activism. This project was funded in-part by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts out of New York City.

As a Fulbright Scholar, Alexander spent a year in Versailles. France to research secularism and the organ and to study with Jean-Baptiste Robin at the Conservatoire à Royonnement Régional de Versailles. A strong advocate of music by living composers, Alexander currently serves as a member of the American Guild of Organists’ Committee on New Music. He has collaborated with composers Huw Morgan, Hon Ki Cheung, and George Katehis on the premiere of their organ works. He has been a finalist in several performance competitions and, in 2016, he won second prize at the Westchester University Organ Competition.

In 2018, he was awarded a grant from the Ruth and Clarence Mader Memorial Scholarship Fund for his ongoing project, “The Organ and Secularized Churches: Church Brewpubs of the Rust Belt Region.” In 2017, he was awarded a substantial grant from the Arizona Center for Renaissance and Medieval Studies for a project titled, “Crossroads for the Organ in the Twenty-First Century: A Precedent for Secularism in the First Decades of Sixteenth-Century Print Culture.” His interdisciplinary research and performances have been included at the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists, the Rocky Mountain chapter of the American Musicological Society, the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, the Historical Keyboard Society of North America, the European Association for the Study of Religion, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In 2020, Alexander completed his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree at Arizona State University under Kimberly Marshall. He finished his Master’s in Organ Performance and Music Theory at the University of Kansas where he studied organ with Michael Bauer and James Higdon and his Bachelor’s in organ with Kola Owolabi while at Syracuse University.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.