JAMES Nelson was a murderer who was accepted for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. In 1969, then aged 24, he beat his mother to death at their home in Garrowhill and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Released on parole in 1979, he applied to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland and that year he began a course of studies at St Mary's College, St Andrews.

Very few within the church knew of Nelson's background and it was not until he had almost completed his course of studies that it was revealed in The Herald by Stewart Lamont (who had known for a number of years that Nelson was a candidate for the ministry) that a murderer was about to become a Kirk minister.

The details of James Nelson's past caused a considerable outcry. His father insisted that Nelson had never expressed any regret or remorse over the murder he had committed, something which can be confirmed by a number of journalists, including myself, who subsequently interviewed him.

One of James Nelson's strongest supporters, the Rev Professor James Whyte, later to become Moderator of the General Assembly, was a member of Hope Park congregation in St Andrews and he told the then minister, Bill Henney, about Nelson's background. Bill Henney agreed to take Nelson on as a student assistant, without revealing Nelson's background, but when news of Nelson's past became public, some members of the congregation and of the Kirk Session left and were never to return.

Nelson was supported at St Andrews not only by Bill Henney and James Whyte, but by the professor of divinity at the time, Bill Shaw, and a fellow student, Georgina Roden, now also a Church of Scotland minister and chaplain to St John's Hospital, Livingston, whom Nelson married in 1983. They divorced in 1997 and Nelson subsequently remarried.

At the General Assembly of 1984, there was an attempt to prevent Nelson being allowed to proceed to the ministry. It was led by Dr Bill Morris, the minister of Glasgow Cathedral. In unprecedented scenes before the debate, the Assembly agreed that radio microphones and television cameras were to be forbidden to record the proceedings, although the church authorities forgot to switch off the close circuit feeds which provided sound coverage of the debate. The broadcasting authorities, however, declined to make use of the material inadvertently provided by the church.

Professor James Whyte argued very powerfully that if the church believed in forgiveness and the grace of God, then it could not prevent anyone, whatever crime they had committed, being admitted to the ministry. He was supported by a previous moderator, Very Rev James Matheson, whose moving speech swayed the Assembly. Nelson was allowed to proceed to the ministry and was inducted to the parishes of Chapelhall linked with Calderbank nearAirdrie in 1986.

At the time of the controversy, there were those with knowledge of James Nelson who believed that instead of arguing that a murderer should not be allowed to be a minister, those who opposed Nelson should have asked whether this particular murderer should have been the test case. If, as subsequently seemed clear, he showed neither remorse nor contrition, that would have been a stronger argument against his ministry than the crime which preceded it.

As a result of his opposition to Nelson on the floor of the General Assembly, Dr Bill Morris of Glasgow Cathedral, who was confidently expected to be moderator when the Assembly met in Glasgow to mark the 300th anniversary of its last meeting in the city, within GlasgowCathedral, was denied the Kirk's highest honour which went to Professor Robert Davidson of Glasgow University.

James Nelson is survived by his second wife Nancy.

Rev James Robert Nelson;

born February 27, 1945 died August 1, 2005