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:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)