THE use of the term "lectures" to describe what in current usage would be called a "Catechism", almost the opposite of a "lecture" in any of the usual senses of that word, calls for explanation. Some brethren appear to regard it as an idiosyncrasy of the Craft e.g. "so-called lectures" in Bro. B. E. Jones's Freemasons' Guide and Compendium. It would seem however to be rather a case of the preservation by the Craft of a meaning, once standard, now otherwise obsolete.
The term "catechetic" lecture was apparently preceded, as far as printed records go, by the term "catechetical" or "catechistical" applied to sermons. The Oxford Dictionary quotes "catechetical sermons" used by Hales in 1618; and "Cyril of Jerusalem his catechetical sermons" by Gataker in 1624. Latham's Johnson's Dictionary quotes from Bishop Cosin's Scholastic History of the Canon (1657) "S. Cyril was the author of those catechistical sermons or constitutions which are mentioned by S. Jerome".
The Oxford Dictionary (s.vv. "catechetic", "catechetical") supplies instances of the phrase "catechetic (or catechetical) lecture" or its plural used in print about 1672, in 1718, and in 1726. Moreover, in 2 Vernon's Reports, p. 267, occurs a reference (in the report of a case decided in 1692) to a chancery decree made in 1679 whereby "catechetical lectures" were substituted for "independent lectures" established by a will but apparently at that time unlawful (perhaps as inculcating nonconformist doctrines).
So much for the respectable antiquity of our masonic phrase. The semantic question remains to be explored. "Catechetical sermon" and "catechetical lecture" are both of them virtual contradictions in terms, "hot ice and wondrous strange snow", capable of making modern sense only if some special meaning be assigned to, either the epithet or the substantive. The Oxford Dictionary does not help. When the entries already cited were composed it was presumably intended that the semantic difficulties should be handled when the substantives were dealt with. Unfortunately when the words "lecture" and "sermon" appeared in later volumes under a different editor, the particular meanings involved through their use with "catechetical" were overlooked; the omission has not been picked up in the supplementary volume.
To begin with, it should be remembered that the first recorded instance of the appearance of a word in print is no certain guide to the time of its first entry into the spoken language, or even of its first use in writing; and that the further back one goes the greater may be the gap between these events. Subject to this caution, it seems more likely than not that the term "catechetical sermon" was the first to be coined; and that it was to begin with applied solely to the sermons of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. These homilies were composed for the catechumens of the church, and were called in fourth-century Greek katecheseishere used, as the lexicon tells us, in a special ecclesiastical sense, and evidently applied not from some particular literary form, but from their intended audience. The sermons of St. Cyril are composed in the ordinary form of running prose, with no suggestion of question and answer.
(Katecheseis was afterwards Englished as "catecheses" but, according to the Oxford Dictionary, not until 1753.)
The suggestion offered is that the term "catechetical sermons" was at first intended as a translation, and at the same time an explanation of "catecheseis" as applied to the sermons of St. Cyril; and that its coiners never intended it to have any wider applicationthe ineptitude of the epithet being disregarded, or perhaps warranted by the special sense attaching to the Greek word; that it was afterwards given a wider sense not so easily justified; and that the term "catechetical lectures" was coined in imitation of it, for application to compositions that could not be described as sermons. Either at this stage, or previously when applied to other sermons than St. Cyril's, the epithet "catechetical" was allowed (assisted perhaps by the influence of "catechism") to have its more natural meaning, and it was the substantive that was compelled to, carry a forced or more unnatural meaning. Perhaps in the beginning some such word as "catechumenal" might have been a happier choice to, go with "sermon"; but it is rather late to offer philological advice to seventeenth-century divines; and certainly too late to change the traditional use of the word "lectures" in freemasonry.
It only remains to express regret (futile, no doubt) that recent masonic writers have tended to cause confusion by extending the word "lectures" to include the "explanations" of the tracing-boards
and other ritual addresses, instead of leaving it to retain its traditional specialized meaning.
THE USE OF THE TERM "LECTURES".
By Bro. A. E. Currie.