Why many church doors are red:

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One of the first things I noticed about Philadelphia in particular was that an unusual amount of churches have painted their doors red.  Ever since I moved here I’ve been dying to investigate why this is – especially since they aren’t all the same denominations. 

I found quite a variety of explanations, though it seems that many of them are spin offs from a couple of root explanations, so to speak.  Most of the explanations stem from Episcopalian traditions, which is why I find it interesting that I found red doors on many churches that are not Episcopalian. 

I think I must have photographed 5 churches just on my way to school today.  You will find these pictures at the end of this text.

Here are the direct quotes of people who shared their understanding of the meanings of red church doors.  You can find the websites from which I have taken them at the end:

red-church-door-1-6.jpg A) Episcopalian church identification “…it was nothing more than a tradition, especially with Episcopal churches.  …if you go to a strange city, you can readily identify the Episcopal Church as the one with the red doors.”        –Mark Emory Graham (1)

red-church-door-1-7.jpg B) Symbol of the blood of Christ and martyrs: “The red doors symbolize the blood of Christ, which is our entry into salvation. They also remind us of the blood of the martyrs, the seeds of the church.” — St. David’s Episcopal Church in Laurinburg, NC (1) (2)

red-church-door-1-33.jpg C) Symbol of church entry:“These doors are symbolic of entering the Church and getting to our Heavenly Father through the blood of Christ” –Immanuel Lutheran Church (1)

red-church-door-1-29.jpg D) Symbol of passion: “Red is the color of the Passion. Red doors say that symbolically we enter the church the Passion, through death and resurrection in baptism (at an Orthodox baptism, the godparents present the candidate with red shoes as a symbol of walking the way of the cross) and by participating in the passion through the Eucharist. Red doors tend to be a continental reformed tradition.” –Paul Woodrum (1)  

red-church-door-1.jpg E) Paid mortgage signal (Episcopalian):  “I heard several years ago that the reason for the red doors on Episcopal churches was to indicate that the mortgage for the church was paid off.” –Bob Miller (1)

red-church-door-1-17.jpg F) Symbol of Sanctuary in the Middle Ages;”warning to pursuers”: “…the red door tradition originated during the Middle Ages in England when it was a sign of sanctuary. In those days, if one who was being pursued by the local populace, shire reeve (sheriff) or gentry could reach the church door he/she would be safe. Nobody would dare to do violence on hallowed ground and, in any case, the Church was not subject to civil law. The red door was fair warning to pursuers that they could proceed no further. One who claimed sanctuary in this way would then be able to present his/her case before the priest and ask that justice be served.” —RonMc (1)

red-church-door-1-8.jpg G) Reference to Passover: “You remember how the children of Israel were to mark “the lintel of the door” with blood, as a sign for the Angel of Death to pass over?  Before modern chemistry and the variety of paint formulae, red paint was made with animal blood (really — I’m not making this up!). “Barn red,” that color so familiar, especially in New England barns, was made with a combination of buttermilk and animal blood — the blood for pigment/color, and the buttermilk as the binder/thickener. (You remember, of course, from art history, about renaissance painters making their paints using egg yolk as a binder…). Anyhow, that’s how they made red paint: blood and buttermilk. It’s a pretty short step from there to red doors, if you are deeply steeped in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and know about marking the lintel of the door with blood to signify that you are among the saved….” –Linda Strohmier (1)

red-church-door-1-13.jpg H) Radical and controversial symbols (19th & early 20th century):  “… Obviously, there is no one definitive answer to this query.  The story as it was delivered to me is that church doors were painted red — as a sign of sanctuary, — as a reminder of the Passover, — as a sign of the Holy Spirit, — as a reminder of the Martyrs etc… all of the things mentioned. And yes this history is long and goes back indeed to the Middle Ages (or perhaps even to the time of the Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures). However, with all of this rich imagery abounding it still was the case in Great Britain and Canada in the 19th and early 20th century that only certain parishes painted their doors red. These were Anglo-Catholic parishes of the Oxford Movement (at least this was how it was reported to me by Urban Anglo-Catholic slum priests in Detroit and Toronto). In addition, a cross might appear on the parish steeple on these parishes. These were bold and controversial symbols at one time. Candles on the altar, liturgical vestments, Processional Crosses, Red Doors, Steeple Crosses, Weekly Eucharist, (not mention incense, bells, and lights that twinkle — ie votive candles) these were all considered radical. …The American Church experience has always been more eclectic. A few decades ago “High Church” or “Anglo-Catholic” parishes probably had red doors more commonly than “Liberal Protestant Parishes” (these were far more common in the American experience than the Evangelical parishes of Britain and Canada). …”   –Kenneth M. Near, Rector St. Paul’s Church, Englewood, NJ (1)

red-church-door-1-27.jpg I) Holy ground; physical and spiritual sanctuary; blood of Christ:  It’s because red doors traditionally mean “sanctuary” — the ground beyond the doors is holy, and anyone who goes through them is safe from physical (and spiritual) harm. In ancient times, no one could pursue an enemy past red doors into a church, and certainly no one could be harmed or captured inside of a church. Today, the red reminds us of the blood of Christ and that we are always safe in God’s care!” –St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church (3)

red-church-door-1-24.jpg J) A welcome sign to people of ALL races, creeds & sexual orientations (Present day interpretation – still debated among Episcopalian churches): ‘“It also represents a welcoming church, a church that opens its arms and doors to everyone regardless of race, creed, color or sexual orientation. …Painting the door bright red, he said, was a bow to tradition and the spirit of sanctuary, and also an acknowledgment of where St. Peter’s stood at this time of controversy and dissent in the Episcopal church — where St. Peter’s has stood for a long time. …”For me,” the new priest said, “it really comes down to the idea of being a house of prayer for all people.”’—Tom Dalton and Rev. Paul Bresnahan (4)  

References:

(1)   http://www.secaucus.org/oursaviour/churchdoors.html

(2)   http://www.stdavidsepiscopal.org/outside.html

(3)   http://www.stthomas-wharton.org/About%20The%20Episcopal%20Church.htm

(4)   http://salemnews.com/punews/local_story_346004626.html  

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~ by amegan_finds_art_in_philly on March 26, 2008.

18 Responses to “Why many church doors are red:”

  1. Thank you for asking (and answering) this question. I noticed quite a few red Church doors as I traveled in the border states a couple of years ago, mostly Anglican or Episcopal churches. Had never seen so many red church doors. Thought it might have to do with the Anglican Schism over the elevation of gay priests to Bishop. (Indicating which camp they fell into).

  2. Karen – I really don’t think so, as church doors have been red for a very very long time. The Episcopal church I attended growing up, All Saint’s in Frederick, MD, was built in like 1750 or something and always had a red door, as far as I know…this was long long before debates over ordained ministers and their sexuality. At the very least, the church door at All Saint’s has been red for the past 22 years, and the debate over gay ministers began only a few short years ago.

  3. from most of my research I have found it to have become popularized my the Catholic church to signify the blood of Christ and Martyrs. It is said to protect the sanctuary behind the red door from all evil.

  4. I am fascinated with these red doors on Episcopal churches here in Colorado. Unfortunately my own church in Loveland, CO has glass doors….reading allthe info about the history of red doors, I wish we could have red doors too. I am going to put all this info together for anyone in my church who might like to read up on the history of our red doors.

  5. your churches are vary welcoming!!!

  6. Someone indicated that ‘red church doors’ originated with the Catholic Church… I find this not to be the case in modern times and doubt that it started there. A simple tour about the city will reveal that little or no Roman churches have red doors. I was christened a Catholic but very early on began attending a United Brethren Church (red doors) which was absorbed by the Evangelical Church (red doors) and became the EUB (Evangelical United Brethren…red doors). They were finally gobbled up by the Methodist Church (red doors) and became the United Methodist Church (red doors). Of course, through the years, I asked “Hey! What’s up with the red doors?” and all of the Pastor’s had the same reply… It symbolizes the Blood of Christ who shed his blood to save the world… and by extension, I think, could be interpreted that the people who enter them are saved or have “sanctuary”. Also this is the term for the room beyond those doors… the Sanctuary.

  7. I was under the impression that it sybolized “to keep the devil out”

  8. Great post. Thanks for the info and beautiful collection of photographs.

  9. You did a great job on this web site. Thanks for your research and for sharing. It was enjoyable and gives answers to a discussion aroung the lunch table at work about this very subject. The office attended a memorial service at an Episcopal Church of the Ascension and the memorial booklet had a picture of the church with a red door, which stood out on an otherwise black & white line drawing picture. I said that I knew this church was paid for and was asked how I knew. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember where I had heard that a red door symbolizes a paid mortgage. (It must have been my Lutheran pastor – now deceased.) Your web site clarifies what I said and much more. The discussion around the lunch table will continue with much more information – Thanks to you.

  10. very interesting, trying to figure out what color to pain the doors of our old unitarian church in oaklandon indiana

  11. Lots of of people write about this matter but you wrote down really true words!

  12. Wonderful!
    I can’t find anything to support the theory of this tradition beginning with the Catholic church. Most of the churches that I have found mention of having red doors can be traced back to the Church of England. So I can only assume that is where this tradition started. However, the Catholic Church in England, Wales, Scottland and especially Ireland had some unique practices from traditional Roman Catholicism. So it very well may have come from Catholic tradition in England. Here in ohio, the only churches I have ever seen with red doors are the old Episcopal churches in more rural northern Ohio. I do love to see them though. As an Episcopalian, I love to find out about all of our old traditions, and see them.

  13. The RED DOOR is an ancient tradition, not commanded by Scripture, nor is there example given by Scripture, but the RED DOOR is certainly derived from it.

    * Blood. The Blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1)
    * Baptism is for remission of sins, according to Apostles Peter and Paul. (Acts 2:38 and 22:16)
    * Baptized into the Church (Acts 2:38-47)
    * Baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27)

    The RED DOOR is intended to be symbolic of entering the Holy Place through the Blood of Christ . . . primitive Christian doctrine of the ancient Church.

  14. A new church in our area actually has this as a part of their name. They have an incredible video talking about why church doors are red.

    http://www.iamreddoor.org

  15. I realize that you posted this several years ago, but I’ve had this same question — SO many St. Louis church doors are red. I’m aware that red is the liturgical color of the Spirit (folks wear red on pentecost), but was sure that most of the churches with red doors were not in traditions that follow that kind of liturgy — and would not identify first and foremost with the Spirit. Thanks for shortening my research!

  16. [...] Image credits: “Vampires” shot – Door photo — ameganfindsartinphilly’s weblog. [...]

  17. Thanks for posting this! I lived in Philly for a few years and always wondered why all the churches had red doors!

  18. :-)

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