Privileges (Privilegia)

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Since the late 16th century Mennonites in various countries have received official documents from rulers or governments defining their rights or privileges with respect to specific issues, usually including release from military service and from the swearing of oaths. Since the late 19th century, schools, language, mutual (aid) insurance, and the Mennonite inheritance system have been added to the contents of a requested Privilegium. Following is a list of known Privilegia:

(a) Netherlands: 26 January 1577, Prince William of Orange; printed in van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror (D 747, E 1054); printed in Doopsgezind Jaarboekje, 1930, 120-23.

(b) Palatinate: 4 August 1664, Elector Charles Louis; printed in Mennonitisches Lexikon II, 461 f.

(c) Wied: 16 December 1680, Count Frederick I for Neuwied; printed in Beiträge zur Geschichte rheinischer Mennoniten (Weierhof, 1939), 152 f.

(d) East Friesland: 26 May 1626, Count Rudolf Christian; printed in J. P. Müller, Die Mennoniten in Ostfriesland vom 16. vis zum 18. Jahrhundert I (Emden, 1887) 41.

(e) Holstein-Gottorp: 13 February 1623, Duke Friedrich III for Friedrichstadt; printed in Corpus Statutorum Slevicensium III I (Schleswig, 1799), 587.

(f) Denmark: 6 June 1641, King Christian IV for Altona; printed in Johann Adrian Bolten, Historische Kirchennachrichten von der Stadt Altona (Altona, 1790/91) 283 f., and Berend Carl Roosen, Geschichte der Mennoniten-Gemeinde zu Hamburg und Altona I (Hamburg, 1886), 37 f.

(g) Prussia: 30 January 1721, King Friedrich Wilhelm I for Krefeld; printed in Beiträge zur Geschichte rheinischer Mennoniten (Weierhof, 1939), 56 f. 27 March 1780, King Friedrich II for West Prussia and East Prussia, also printed in Reiswitz and Wadzeck, Beitrage zur Kenntnis der Mennonitengemeinden (Berlin, 1821) 212 ff., and in Max Beheim-Schwarzbach, Hohenzollernsche Colonisationen (Leipzig, 1874) 420.

(h) Poland: 22 December 1642, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa; printed in Wilhelm Mannhardt, Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreußischen Mennoniten (Marienburg, 1863) LX-LXI (1, Lat.) and 80 ff. (German)--22 August 1694, King John III  Sobieski; printed in Wilhelm Mannhardt, Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreußischen Mennoniten (Marienburg, 1863) LXV-LXVI (4, Lat.) and 87 ff. (German)--12 (or 18) October 1732, King Augustus II; printed in Wilhelm Mannhardt, Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreußischen Mennoniten (Marienburg, 1863) LXVII-LXVIII (5, Lat.) and 90 f. (German), also printed in Hermann Nottarp, Die Mennoniten in den Marienburger Werdern (Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, geisteswissenschaftliche Klasse VI, 2, Halle, 1929) 89 f.-19 September 1750, King Augustus III; printed in Wilhelm Mannbardt, Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreußischen Mennoniten (Marienburg, 1863) 93 ff. (German).

(i) Russia: 3 March 1788, Tsarina Catherine II; printed in David Heinrich Epp, Die Chortitzer Mennoniten (Odessa, 1889), 24ff. -- 6 September 1800, Tsar Paul I; printed in David Heinrich Epp, Die Chortitzer Mennoniten (Odessa, 1889), also in Antje Brons, Ursprung, Entwickelung und Schicksale ... Mennoniten (Amsterdam, 1912) 278 ff.

(j) Mexico: 26 August 1921, Declaration of President Alvaro Obregon; printed in J. Winfield Fretz, Mennonite colonization in Mexico (Akron, Pa., 1945) 11 (English) and also in Mennonitisches Lexikon III, 120 (Ger. man).

(k) Paraguay: 26 July 1921, Law No. 514; printed in Las Colonias Menonitas en el Chaco Paraguayo (Asuncion, 1934) 5 ff. (Spanish and Ger man), also in Walter Quiring, Russlanddeutsche suchen eine Heimat (Schriftenreihe des Deutschen Ausland-Instituts 7, Karlsruhe, 1938) 51 ff., in Der Mennonit, March 1950, 32 (German), in Sanford C. Yoder, For conscience sake (Scottdale, 1945) 275 ff, and in Willard H. Smith and Verna Graber Smith, Paraguayan interlude (Scottdale, 1950) 174 ff. (English) . E.C.

(l) Canada: 13 August 1873, Order-in-Council P.C. 959; printed in William Schroeder, The Bergthal Colony (Winnipeg, 1974, 1986), appendix C.

(m) British Honduras (Belize): 18 December 1957, Governor Sir Colin H. Thornley; printed in H. Leonard Sawatzky, They sought a country: Mennonite colonization in Mexico (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1971), appendix.

(n) Bolivia, 1930; renewed and slightly revised on 16 March 1962, Decree no. 6030, President Victor Paz Estensoro; English translation printed in James Walter Lanning, "The Old Colony Mennonites of Bolivia: a case study" (MSc thesis, Texas A. and M. University., 1971), appendix B. The Bolivian privileges were abolished on 30 December 1975, and almost totally reinstated 27 March 1985.

Swiss and German Mennonite immigrants to British North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Mennonites coming from Russia to the United States in the 19th century, did not obtain special privileges.

Refugees from the Soviet Union settling in Brazil in 1930 failed to obtain a Privilegium. The Mennonite request for alternatives to military service, presented to the Brazilian government, 28 March 1979, was again unsuccessful. Mennonites settling in Argentina beginning in 1986 also did not have a Privilegium.

Descendants of the Mennonites who arrived in Russia between 1788 and 1820 came to consider a Privilegium almost as an essential condition of settlement. Thus they had a strong tendency to consider emigration whenever key elements of privileges granted appeared to be threatened. The 1873 delegates sent by the Molotschna colony to explore settlement possibilities in North America were explicitly instructed on four points to be assured in an agreement with the host country. Although the 11,000 Russian Mennonites who immigrated to the United States in the 1870s were unable to obtain a Privilegium from the American government, the 7,000 going to Canada received the desired guarantees in a Cabinet order (see l above). Descendants of the latter made the successful negotiation of a Privilegium a necessary prerequisite in their migrations to Mexico, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Belize.

Many of the Privilegia, especially in recent times, are more a defining of mutual rights and obligations than the granting of special privileges. Generally they facilitate the maintenance of compact group settlement, thereby making it possible for local self-government to perpetuate effectively a number of peculiarly Mennonite communal arrangements. These, however, were just as effectively maintained by other groups, such as Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the United States and eastern Canada, who have no Privilegium.

Special privileges were not an unmixed blessing. While they fostered a stance of separation from the world by the defined separation from the host society (nonconformity), they also discouraged the developing of a sense of responsibility towards those outside the privileged community. The granting of special privileges to select groups was sometimes resented by members of the host society, especially in times of national crisis. Since similar resentment was directed also at immigrant groups who did not have a Privilegium but who stood out from the rest of society through differences in customs, language, and culture, it is difficult to determine to what ex tent these negative feelings were caused by the special privileges.


Crous, Ernst. "Die Mennoniten in Deutschland seit dem Dreissigjährigen Kriege." Der Mennonit 3 (1950): 7.

Fretz, J. Winfield. "A Visit to the Mennonites in Bolivia." Mennonite Life 15 (January 1960): 13-17.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 398 f.

Klassen, Peter P. Die Mennoniten in Paraguay. Bolanden-Weierhof. Menn. Geschichtsverein, 1988: 40-62.

Mannhardt, W. Die Wehrfreiheit der Altpreußischen Mennoniten. Marienburg, 1863.

Pauls, Peter, Jr. Mennoniten in Brasilien: Gedenkschriften zum 50 Jahr=Jubilaeum ihrer Einwanderung. Witmarsum, 1980: 78-80.

Sudermann, Leonhard. Eine Deputationsreise von Russland nach Amerika. Elkhart, IN: Mennonitische Verlagshandlung, 1897: 10.

Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets, and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1982: esp. 51 ff.

Author(s) Ernst Crous
Adolf Ens
Date Published 1989

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Crous, Ernst and Adolf Ens. "Privileges (Privilegia)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 Sep 2021.

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Crous, Ernst and Adolf Ens. (1989). Privileges (Privilegia). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 September 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 220; v. 5, p. 724. All rights reserved.

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