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The verb ‘to indulge’ means ‘to yield to’ or ‘to gratify’. It may take as an object either a desire or interest (as in ‘John indulged his love of travel by taking long train journeys to nowhere in particular’ or ‘James was happy to indulge Julia’s passion for the theatre and they became regular theatre-goers’) or a person (as in ‘Jack decided to indulge the children by allowing them to stay up far beyond their usual bedtime’). In informal speech the verb is sometimes used intransitively to mean ‘to have an alcoholic drink’.

The related noun is ‘indulgence’, which may refer either to the act or habit of indulging (as in ‘His father’s indulgence had a bad effect on the boy’s character’) or to what is indulged in (as in ‘A small sherry before dinner was his only indulgence’). The related adjectiveindulgent’ means ‘showing or characterised by indulgence’ and may be used to describe either a person’s behaviour on a particular occasion (‘It was indulgent of him to let the children stay up till midnight’) or their character (‘He was an indulgent father’).

In certain contexts the noun indulgence is used with a more particular meaning. Two such uses are:

  • In the Roman Catholic Church an indulgence is a way of reducing the punishment one must undergo for one’s sins – more specifically, the punishment one must undergo after death while in the state of purgatory. According to Catholic doctrine, the Church is able to grant indulgences through its ability to draw on the ‘treasury of merits’ (the excess of merit generated by the supererogatory goodness of Jesus and the saints), but an indulgence should be granted only to those who have performed some appropriate action to receive it. The granting of indulgences in return for donations to the Church was one of the abuses listed by Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his Ninety Five Theses, the document which set out his criticisms of the Catholic Church of his day and which he nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. (See further Counter-Reformation.)
  • In 17th century Britain the Acts of Indulgence proposed by the Stuart kings, Charles II and James II, were attempts to promote a measure of religious tolerance. In 1672 Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) introduced legislation to remove some of the restrictions imposed on Roman Catholics and (Protestant) Nonconformists by acts passed earlier in his reign (e.g., the Corporation Act (1661), which required all holders of public office to take communion in an Anglican Church, and the Act of Uniformity (1662), which stipulated that all public acts of worship follow the order of service in the Book of Common Prayer). Charles’s proposed legislation proved extremely controversial: Parliament forced him to withdraw it and, with the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678, further strengthened the restrictions on Catholics and Nonconformists. In 1687 Charles’s younger brother and successor on the throne, James II (1633-1701, reigned 1685-1688), attempted to introduce a (similar) Act of Indulgence, but the attempt met with even fiercer hostility from Parliamentarians, and was one of the reasons for James’ deposition and The Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Etymological note: Indulgence, indulgent, and indulge all come from the Latin verb indulgēre, ’to be kind to’, ‘to indulge’, ‘to give way to’, ‘to indulge in’.