The earliest speculative Freemasons were probably all Christians as a matter of course. Although Anderson’s ‘Constitutions’ of 1723 and 1738 opened the door of English Freemasonry to “all Good Men and True” who were not “stupid atheists”, in the late 1740’s specifically Christian Masonic Rites began to appear in France, possibly England also.
For the most part these Rites were ‘chivalric’, and by the 1770’s vestiges of the Templar-Malta ceremonies took place in ‘Encampments’ derived from Royal Arch Chapters under the Grand Lodge of the ‘Antients’. In 1791 probably seven (there is some doubt about the precise number) of these Encampments joined together to form a Grand Conclave under the rule of Thomas Dunckerley.
After the union in 1813 the Duke of Sussex became Grand Master, but it was only after his death in 1843 that the orders flourished with renewed vigour. Although ‘Encampments’ later became known as ‘Preceptories’, and the ‘Grand Conclave’ changed its name to ‘Great Priory’, the latter is, after the Grand Lodge of the Craft itself, the longest established English Masonic authority.
It presides over more than 600 Preceptories at home and abroad, each of which (with the exception of ‘Baldwyn C’ at Bristol and ‘Antiquity, No.1’ at Bath) works the official ritual, and which are grouped into 39 Provincial Priories. Great Priory meets twice a year, periodically a Church Service is arranged for the Knights and their friends (in 2001 this took place in Lincoln Cathedral), and the Orders give considerable support to the St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, a charitable foundation of the (non-Masonic) Venerable Order of St. John.