St Thomas’ church was established at a time of flux in the Church of England, when the Catholic Revival and the Evangelical Revival were pulling in opposite directions. Rev Joseph Armytage, a curate at St Mary’s (the parish church, which was then becoming more High Church under the Catholic Revival), left that church because of a disagreement with the Vicar of Lancaster over the style of services; with financial help from a prominent local family of merchants (the Salisburys) he arranged for a new evangelical church to be built on an empty site near the canal at the south end of town. The foundation stone was laid on the 3rd of March 1840 and the church took a year to build, at a cost of £1,200 (about £85,000 at today’s prices). The new church - designed by well-known local architect Edmund Sharpe - had seating for 1,000 people, and the outside looked much as it does today except it initially had no steeple (added in 1852), and the St Thomas’ School (now the Church Centre) was built several years later (1843). (To the left is a picture of St Thomas' from the 1880's.)
The first service was held in St Thomas’ church on the evening of the 14th of April 1841, with a 90 minute sermon by Rev David James of Liverpool based on Isaiah 28:16 (“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic”). It was the fourth Anglican church to be built in Lancaster, after St Mary’s (The Priory; 1380), St John’s (1755; closed 1981) and St Anne’s (1796; closed 1971), and was formally consecrated (by the Bishop of Chester, to whose diocese Lancaster then belonged) two months later on the 14th of June.
Joseph Armytage was the first vicar; he served between 1841 and 1845, left to work for the Church Pastoral Aid Society, and was then invited back again in 1871 but sadly died before he was able to take up the post. He was succeeded in 1845 by Rev Colin Campbell, who served for 11 years and invested a great deal of his own money (inherited from his successful businessman father) in completing the church, including building the spire, installing a grand organ, building a single-storey church school behind the church, buying a vicarage for the church, and buying houses for the Organist and the Schoolmaster. Colin died in post but his son, also called Colin, took over as Vicar in 1858 and served for 13 years before moving further north to be Vicar of Ambleside. Many others followed in their shoes, and together helped to build the church as we know it today.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. As slum housing around the church was demolished in the early 20th century and people were progressively rehoused across the canal in the new housing estates in Primrose, Bowerham, and Scotforth, the church progressively lost its local congregation and several times (in 1896, 1937, 1948, and 1959) was threatened with closure or relocation to a new site in Bowerham. Thankfully over the years such moves were resisted, and in recent decades the congregation has grown both large and diverse, with a high proportion of people who worship at St Thomas’ but live outside the parish boundary.
One enduring landmark in the history of the church was the season of charismatic renewal from the late 1970s onwards, when the church and many of its members were touched and filled by the Holy Spirit. Through this new spiritual gifts were released and exercised, new ministries like prophecy and healing were developed, new styles of worship were introduced, and renewed commitment to mission and evangelism was experienced. These gifts from God, and the outworking of them within and beyond the congregation, have continued to shape the ministry of St Thomas’ since that time, and significantly helped to shape the church into what it is today.