What does a portrait of Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist hanging in Monticello's Parlor have to do with religious freedom? Monticello Guide Alice Wagner retells this New Testament story and connects the painting -- and other religious paintings at Monticello -- to Thomas Jefferson's commitment to religious freedom in the United States, specifically his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

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This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

If you've been to Monticello, there's a good chance you remember a particular painting inside the house. It depicts a gruesome, murderous scene from the Bible, and visitors often ask why Jefferson would have such a macabre image displayed in his home. It turns out that this painting might have important lessons for a brand new nation.

Alice Wagner is a Full-Time Guide at Monticello. 

Alice Wagner: Right now we're standing in the parlor, looking at the largest painting in the room. It depicts a young woman holding a man's head on a platter. The scene comes from the Bible. The woman is Salome, commonly identified as the stepdaughter of King Herod. The man is John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus of Nazareth.

John was executed not only for his religious teachings, but also for his criticism of the King and Queen. Jefferson would use paintings like this to spark conversation. The story of John the Baptist would be a great way for him to discuss the danger of the government trying to control people's beliefs and words.

And for Jefferson and his contemporaries, this was no hypothetical scenario. In the 1780s, all 13 states had official government-supported religions. Here in his home state, Jefferson challenged the power of the Anglican church in his bill, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, where he wrote that, "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry."

It was not an immediately popular bill. He worked for years with James Madison to get the law passed, but eventually it became the first law anywhere in the country establishing a separation of church and state. While Jefferson changed his mind about many other things in the course of his long life, he would never waiver in his belief that religious liberty and freedom of conscience were critical to self-governance.

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: This episode of Mountaintop History was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.

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