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Freedom to Worship | Freedom from Oppression | Freedom from Want | Freedom from Fear| Freedom to Create

Freedom to Worship


In this lesson, students investigate reasons why historically people sought freedom to worship in the United States and some of the difficulties and issues facing them in their immigration. They will demonstrate their knowledge by writing "letters home" to family members in the "old country" about their new life.

Grade Level: 7-12

Subject Area(s): United States History; World History; Civics; Language Arts

Time Needed for Lesson: 2-3 class periods (however, the teacher may elect to extend the assignment to accommodate further research regarding immigrants' search for freedom of religion in the United States).


As a result of completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. More thoroughly understand the conditions and difficulties facing immigrants who sought religious freedom in the United States
  2. Understand the concerns and issues facing them as they sought to make a new life and worship as they chose
  3. Research a historical period and subject area as well as express conclusions regarding the research through expository writing.

Materials Needed:

A copy of "Destination America" (Visit PBS Shop for ordering information.)


This lesson meets the following national content standards established by Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

United States History:

  • Understands characteristics of religious development in colonial America (e.g., the presence of diverse religious groups and their contributions to religious freedom; the political and religious influence of the Great Awakening; the major tenets of Puritanism and its legacy in American society; the dissension of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and Puritan objections to their ideas and behavior)
  • Understands the religious, political, and social ideas that contributed to the 19th century belief in Manifest Destiny (e.g., the influence of U.S. trading interests in the Far East on continental expansion to the Pacific, "City Upon a Hill" and subsequent Protestant belief in building a model Christian community, millennialism and the Great Awakening, Republicanism, the urge to keep foreign enemies from gaining control of the Pacific Coast, the belief in America's duty to uplift "less civilized" peoples in the West)
  • Understands significant religious, cultural, and social changes in the American West (e.g., the degree to which political democracy influenced social and political conditions on the frontier, cultural characteristics of diverse groups, the impact of the Second Great Awakening and religious revivals on Mormon migration to the West, the lives of women in the West)

Historical Understanding:

  • Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Understands historical continuity and change related to a particular development or theme (e.g., the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of democracy in the U.S.)
  • Understands historical continuity and change related to a particular development or theme (e.g., the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of democracy in the U.S.)
  • Knows how to evaluate the credibility and authenticity of historical sources

World History:

  • Understands influences on and consequences of European immigration and settlement (e.g., how European settlements affected the politics and economy of the local regions, as well as resources, labor, the flow of goods, and markets; the diverse motivations behind resettlement for specific groups of immigrants; the impact of new immigrants upon the environment and indigenous populations of Australia; how substantial European immigration in the 19th century had economic consequences for cities in the United States)

Language Arts:

  • Prewriting: Uses a variety of prewriting strategies (e.g., develops a focus, plans a sequence of ideas, uses structured overviews, uses speed writing, creates diagrams)
  • Writes fictional, biographical, autobiographical, and observational narrative compositions (e.g., narrates a sequence of events; evaluates the significance of the incident; provides a specific setting for scenes and incidents; provides supporting descriptive detail [specific names for people, objects, and places; visual details of scenes, objects, and places; descriptions of sounds, smells, specific actions, movements, and gestures; the interior monologue or feelings of the characters]; paces the actions to accommodate time or mood changes; creates a unifying theme or tone; uses literary devices to enhance style and tone)
  • Uses appropriate research methodology (e.g., formulates questions and refines topics, develops a plan for research; organizes what is known about a topic; uses appropriate research methods, such as questionnaires, experiments, field studies; collects information to narrow and develop a topic and support a thesis)
  • Uses a variety of primary sources to gather information for research topics

Teaching Strategy:

The teacher can begin the lesson by having students "sample" other primary source history materials, for example, an excerpt from "The Diary of a Young Girl" (Anne Frank), or the Sullivan Ballou letter. After examining these materials, ask students through class discussion to explain the value of primary historic sources and how primary source materials such as letters help make history "come alive" to later generations. (Students may note that the importance of primary sources include that the source was an "eyewitness" to a historical event or period. They may also note that the source brings a personal bend (perhaps a bias) to that particular event.)

After the conclusion of the discussion, introduce the lesson by noting that new immigrants would frequently write letters to family members and friends who they left behind in their homeland. Inform the students that they will write "letters home" to family members and friends describing what their new life is like in America, especially as it relates to religious freedom.

Next, have students view The Earth Is the Lord's from the Destination America series. (Students should pay particular attention to historical footage in the film, including that of the Hassidic Jews and Anabaptists, and Tibetan Buddhists, and collect information as the film airs.) The teacher may also wish to have the students do additional research using the suggested Online Resources, or other resources, including tradition forms, such as books.

Specific time cues for each of the groups featured in the film and lesson include:

Tibetan Buddhists: 2:00-13:10 mark; 32:35-38:10 mark; 50:30-54:00 mark

Hasidic Jews: 13:10-32:35 mark

Anabaptists: 38:10-50:30 mark

Once students have concluded watching the related segments of the film as well as any collaborative research from the Online Resources, they can begin to plan and write their "letters home" using information collected in their research. While the teacher may wish to add or change specific criteria for the letter, the following points are suggested:

  1. Since students will be doing historical research and assuming they personally are immigrants from another period, they should date the letter accordingly.
  2. The letter should include a salutation which would reflect that the recipient of the letter is a citizen of another country. Therefore, the teacher may wish to require students to look for typical names of people from the countries reflected in The Earth Is the Lord's.
  3. The focus of the letter should be on historical accuracy, in particular, information from the Destination America film as well as web site. While the letter is hypothetical, the "flavor" of the assignment should reflect how people might have written letters in the historic period of the film.
  4. The teacher may also wish to evaluate student work in terms of correct spelling and grammar as well, although frequently letters from other historical periods might include colloquialisms and spelling and grammar errors common by persons just learning the English language.

Extension Activities:

If suitable resources exist locally, the teacher may also elect for students to research and write reports dealing with how immigrants' search for religious freedom may have impacted their own communities. For example, a student may research local church or synagogue records looking for immigrant members, or if possible, interview modern-day immigrants as to their view on their own religious freedom in the United States.

Using outline maps of the United States, have students locate and chart the migration of Hassidic Jews, Anabaptists, and Tibetan Buddhists in the country.

Online Resources:

Destination America

Destination America "Freedom to Worship" webpage

Destination America "When Did They Come?" webpage

Destination America "Personal Stories" page featuring Gehlek Rimpoche

Reflections on Immigration, Religion, and Race (Jose Casanova, International Center for Migration, Ethnicity, and Citizenship), Pew Charitable Trusts Grantee Publications

Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

Digital History Immigration Resources

The American Immigration Home Page

National Humanities Center: American Jewish Experience Through the 19th Century

Anabaptist-Mennonite History page

Government of Tibet in Exile

Buddhist History Page

Buddhist History Timeline

Freedom to Worship | Freedom from Oppression | Freedom from Want | Freedom from Fear| Freedom to Create

Sources: Destination America

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