From murderer to minister: the strange story of the redemption of James Nelson

In 1969, Nelson was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his own mother. When he was released, he applied to become a Church of Scotland minister.

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In 1969, the Airdrie Sheriff Court sentenced James Nelson – then aged 24 – to life for the murder “in cold rage rather than ungoverned fury” of his own mother. While in jail he took up the study of theology and on his release applied to become a minister in the Church of Scotland.

We’re more used now to that kind of story told in reverse – the minister turns out to be a villain, not the villain who wants to be a minister. Christianity, however, is built on the possibility of redemption. After all, its second founder, St Paul, first appears holding the coats at the public execution of St Stephen. No one has ever suggested that during his missionary journeys he had nights when – like a dieter on a bad day – he just had to sneak out and stone one last Christian.

But James Nelson never produced any Damascene fireworks. He didn’t give inspirational talks about his conversion or describe himself as the greatest of sinners. In 2005 his disappointed obituarists all noted that he never showed any public signs of regret or repentance. He’d done his time, paid his debt, and now he wanted to be a minister of the church. He was challenging the church to demonstrate its belief in forgiveness without offering it any grateful tears and without doing much to reassure it that he was now a virtuous man.

The conscience in question was an especially precise one. The common-sense solution might have been to accept Nelson’s repentance as real but not put him in charge of the spiritual welfare of others. Yet for the Church of Scotland to accept that would be for it to imply that a member of the congregation could be justified by faith, but a minister had to be justified by works. So they gave him the job. He got on with it and when ten years later the press tried to reboot the scandal, his parishioners wrote in with letters of support.

It’s a remarkable story and Stuart Kelly has written a remarkable book. Its title signals its exploration of the great Scots-Calvinist theme of the doubleness of identity – placing Nelson in the same category as the cabinet-maker-housebreaker Deacon Brodie, Jekyll and Hyde and the Justified Sinner. Its subtitle is “A Book of Aftermaths”. Nowadays, the word aftermath is almost always used to refer to ruin and injury, but its root is as the name for the second harvest that is sometimes possible after the first has been gathered in.

Lexical richness is one of the book’s incidental joys. Reading it has increased my own word hoard with – among other jewels – dwam, pleonasm, bloviation and theopneusty. Kelly’s arguments are illustrated with references to Apuleius Madaurensis, Star Trek, Hebridean folk tales and the correspondence pages of the Fife Herald. There’s a brilliantly bracing chapter when he goes through all the rapes and murders of the Old Testament. I was particularly delighted to see him praise GK Chesterton for standing up against fascism and eugenics when the fashionable intelligentsia wasall for those things.

This is one of those books – like Religio Medici, Rings of Saturn, Father and Son or the Essays of Montaigne – that you know is going to be with you for the rest of your days. But if that makes it sound like a comfy curio, it’s not. The themes it deals with are urgent and current. Forgiveness and forgetting have always gone hand-in-hand. When the world switched from analogue to digital, the collective memory gave way to the searchable archive. We’re coming into an era when nothing will be forgotten – we Instagram our meals, we tweet our darkest thoughts, we share and over-share immediate responses. Montaigne argued that the “I” who was writing the end of the sentence was a different “I” to the one who began it. But what happens when thousands of friends and followers are waiting to screenshot the beginning of the sentence and yell “How about this?” We are becoming a society of recording angels, holding each other to account. What happens to the possibility of change then?

Kelly’s book focuses on this idea and elaborates it, taking the single, immutable fact of Nelson’s change and using it as the measure of Kelly’s own changes from zealot to atheist to somewhere in that hopeful, unsatisfying place in between; his change from marriage to divorce; and from wanting to understand more about Nelson to realising that we are all, in truth, unknowable.

Truth becomes the book’s great theme. Discussing the folkloric Thomas the Rhymer – condemned by a fairy curse to be only ever able to speak the whole truth – Kelly says, “We all lie, perpetually… But that does not mean that trying to be more truthful is a will-o’-the wisp… Even a small amount of truth will call out to the virtues to assist it: to patience and gentleness, to bravery and fortitude, to humility and fidelity.”

This is a knotty, intellectually thrilling book but it is also humble, brave, patient and truthful. 

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His latest book is “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” (Macmillan)

The Minister and the Murderer: a Book of Aftermaths
Stuart Kelly
Granta Books, 342pp, £20

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special