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Significant Scots
Robert Barclay


BARCLAY, ROBERT, the celebrated Apologist for the Quakers, was born on the 23rd of December, 1648, at Gordonstoun, in Moray. His father, Colonel David Barclay, of Ury, was the son of David Barclay, of Mathers, the representative of an old Scoto-Norman family, which traced itself, through fifteen intervening generations, to Theobald de Berkeley, who acquired a settlement in Scotland at the beginning of the twelfth century. The mother of the Apologist was Catherine Gordon, daughter of Sir Robert Gordon, of Gordonstoun, the premier baronet of Nova Scotia, and well-known historian of the house of Sutherland.

The ancient family of de Berkeley became possessed of the estate of Mathers, by marriage, in the year 1851. Alexander de Berkeley, who flourished in the fifteenth century, is said to have been the first laird of Mathers who changed the name to Barclay; a change which says little for his taste, however recommended by that principle of literal and syllabic economy which seems to have flourished at all periods in a greater or less degree, though chiefly at the present era. This laird, however, is reputed to have been a scholar, and to him are attributed the excellent verses, known by the title of the LAIRD OF MATHERS’ TESTAMENT, which, for their piety and good sense, cannot be too widely disseminated, or too warmly recommended. These verses are subjoined in the modified form under which they have come down traditionally to our time:

Gif thou desire thy house lang stand
And thy successors bruik thy land,
Abuve all things, lief God in fear,
Intromit nocht with wrangous gear;
Nor conquess [Acquire] nothing wrangously;
With thy neighbour keep charity.
See that that thou pass not thy estate;
Obey duly thy magistrate;
Oppress not but support the puire;
To help the commonweill take cuire.
Use no deceit; mell [meddle] not with treason;
And to all men do richt and reason.
Both unto word and deid be true;
All kinds of wickedness eschew.
Slay no man; nor thereto consent;
Be nocht cruel, but patient,
Ally ay in some gude place,
With noble, honest, godly, race.
Hate huredom, and all vices flee;
Be humble; haunt gude companye.
Help thy friend, and do nae wrang,
And God shall make thy house stand lang.

David, the grandfather of the Apologist, from neglect of some part of his ancestor’s advice, was reduced to such difficulties as to be obliged to sell the estate of Mathers, after it had been between two and three hundred years in the family, as also the more ancient inheritance, which had been the property of the family from its first settlement in Scotland in the days of King David I. His son, David, the father of the Apologist, was consequently obliged to seek his fortune as a volunteer in the Scottish brigades in the service of Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden. This gentleman, like many others of his countrymen and fellow-soldiers, returned home on the breaking out of the religious troubles in Scotland, and received the command of a troop of horse. Having joined the army raised by the Duke of Hamilton in 1648 for the relief of Charles I, he was subsequently deprived of his command, at the instance of Oliver Cromwell; and he never afterwards appeared in any military transactions. During the protectorate, he was several times sent as a representative from Scotland to Cromwell’s parliaments, and, in this capacity, is said to have uniformly exerted himself to repress the ambitious designs of the Protector. After the restoration, David Barclay was committed prisoner to Edinburgh Castle, upon some groundless charge of hostility to the government. He was soon after liberated, through the interest of the Earl of Middleton, with whom he had served in the civil war. But during this imprisonment, a change of the highest importance both to himself and his son, had come over his mind. In the same prison was confined the celebrated Laird of Swinton, who, after figuring under the protectorate as a lord of session, and a zealous instrument for the support of Cromwell’s interest in Scotland, had, during a short residence in England before the Restoration, adopted the principles of Quakerism, then recently promulgated for the first time by George Fox, and was now more anxious to gain proselytes to that body than to defend his life against the prosecution meditated against him. When this extraordinary person was placed on trial before parliament, he might have easily eluded justice by pleading that the parliamentary attainder upon which he was now charged, had become null by the rescissory act. But he scorned to take advantage of any plea suggested by worldly lawyers. He answered, in the spirit of his sect, that when he committed the crimes laid to his charge, he was in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity, but that God having since called him to the light, he saw and acknowledged his past errors, and did not refuse to pay the forfeit of them, even though in their judgment this should extend to his life. His speech was, though modest, so majestic, and, though expressive of the most perfect patience, so pathetic, that it appeared to melt the hearts of his judges and, to the surprise of all who remembered his past deeds, he was recommended to the royal mercy, while many others, far less obnoxious, were treated with unrelenting severity. Such was the man who inoculated David Barclay with those principles, of which his son was destined to be the most distinguished advocate.

Robert Barclay, the subject of the present article, received the rudiments of learning in his native country, and was afterwards sent to the Scots college at Paris, of which his uncle Robert (son to the last Barclay of Mathers,) was Rector. Here he made such rapid advances in his studies, as to gain the notice and praise of the masters of the college; and he also became so great a favourite with his uncle, as to receive the offer of being made his heir, if he would remain in France. But his father, fearing that he might be induced to embrace the catholic faith, went, in compliance with his mother’s dying request, to Paris to bring him home, when he was not much more than sixteen years of age. The uncle still endeavoured to prevent his return, and proposed to purchase for him, and present to him immediately, an estate greater than his paternal one. Robert replied, "He is my father, and must be obeyed." Thus, even at a very early age, he showed how far he could prefer a sacred principle to any view of private interest, however dazzling. His uncle is said to have felt much chagrin at his refusal, and to have consequently left his property to the college, and to other religious houses in France.

The return of Robert Barclay to his native country took place in 1664, about two years before his father made open profession of the principles of the Society of Friends. He was now, even at the early age of sixteen, perfectly skilled in the French and Latin languages, the latter of which he could write and speak with wonderful fluency and correctness; he had also a competent knowledge of the sciences. With regard to the state of his feelings on the subject of religion at this early period of life, he says, in his Treatise on Universal Love: "My first education, from my infancy fell amongst the strictest sort of Calvinists; those of our country being generally acknowledged to be the severest of that sect; in the heat of zeal surpassing not only Geneva, from whence they derive their pedigree, but all other the reformed churches abroad, so called. I had scarce got out of my childhood, when I was, by the permission of Divine Providence, cast among the company of papists; and my tender years and immature capacity not being able to withstand and resist the insinuations that were used to proselyte me to that way, I became quickly defiled with the pollutions thereof, and continued therein for a time, until it pleased God, through his rich love and mercy, to deliver me out of those snares, and to give me a clear understanding of the evil of that way. In both these sects I had abundant occasion to receive impressions contrary to this principle of love: seeing the straitness of several of their doctrines, as well as their practice of persecution, do abundantly declare how opposite they are to universal love. The time that intervened betwixt my forsaking the church of Rome, and joining those with whom I now stand engaged, I kept myself free from joining with any sort of people, though I took liberty to hear several; and my converse was most with those that inveigh much against judging, and such kind of severity; which latitude may perhaps be esteemed the other extreme, opposite to the preciseness of these other sects; whereby I also received an opportunity to know what usually is pretended on that side likewise. As for those I am now joined to, I justly esteem them to be the true followers and servants of Jesus Christ."

In his Apology, he communicates the following account of his conversion to the principles previously embraced by his father. "It was not," he says, "by strength of argument, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, that I came to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this Life. For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power amongst them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might find myself perfectly redeemed." According to his friend William Penn, it was in the year 1667, when only nineteen years of age, that he fully became "convinced, and publicly owned the testimony of the true light, enlightening every man." "This writer," says he, "came early forth a zealous and fervent witness for it (the true light), enduring the cross and despising the shame that attended his discipleship, and received the gift of the ministry as his greatest honour, in which he laboured to bring others to God, and his labour was not in vain in the Lord." The testimony of another of his brethren, Andrew Jaffrey, is to the same effect: "Having occasion, through his worthy father, to be in the meetings of God’s chosen people, who worship him in his own name, spirit, and power, and not in the words of man’s wisdom and preparation, he was, by the virtue and efficacious life of this blessed power, shortly after reached, and that in a time of silence, a mystery to the world, and came so fast to grow therein, through his great love and watchfulness to the inward appearance thereof, that, not long after, he was called out to the public ministry, and declaring abroad that his eyes had seen and his hands had handled of the pure word of life. Yea the Lord, who loved him, counted him worthy so early to call him to some weighty and hard services for his truth in our nation, that, a little after his coming out of the age of minority, as it is called, he was made willing, in the day of God’s power, to give up his body as a sign and wonder to this generation, and to deny himself and all in him as a man so far as to become a fool, for his sake whom he loved, in going in sackcloth and ashes through the chief streets of the city of Aberdeen, besides some services at several steeple-houses and some sufferings in prison for the truth’s sake."

The true grounds of Barclay’s predilection for the meek principle of the Friends, is perhaps to be found in his physical temperament. On arriving in Scotland, in 1664, with a heart open to every generous impulse, his mild nature appears, from one of the above extracts of his own writings, to have been shocked by the mutual hostility which existed between the adherents of the established and the dis-established churches. While these bodies judged of each other in the severest spirit, they joined in one point alone – a sense of the propriety of persecuting the new and strange sect called Quakers, from whom both might rather have learned a lesson of forbearance and toleration. Barclay, who, from his French education, was totally free of all prejudices on either side, seems to have deliberately preferred that sect which alone, of all others in his native country, professed to regard every denomination of fellow-Christians with an equal feeling of kindness.

In February, 1669-70, Robert Barclay married Christian Mollison, daughter of Gilbert Mollison, merchant in Aberdeen; and on his marriage settled at Ury with his father. The issue of this marriage was three sons and four daughters, all of whom survived him, and were living fifty years after his death. In the life of John Gratton, there is an agreeable and instructive account of this excellent mother’s solicitude to imbue the tender minds of her children with pious and good principles. The passage is as follows: "I observed (1694, her husband being then dead,) that when her children were up in the morning and dressed, she sat down with them, before breakfast, and in a religious manner waited upon the Lord: which pious care, and motherly instructions of her children when young, doubtless had its desired effect upon them, for as they grew in years, they also grew in the knowledge of the blessed truth; and since that time, some of them have become public preachers thereof." Believing it to be her duty to appear a preacher of righteousness, she was very solicitous that her example might, in all respects, correspond with her station.

Robert Barclay, after his marriage, lived about sixteen years with his father; in which time he wrote most of those works by which his fame has been established. All his time, however, was not passed in endeavouring to serve the cause of religion with his pen. He both acted and suffered for it. His whole existence, indeed, seems to have been henceforth devoted to the interests of that profession of religion which he had adopted. In prosecution of his purpose, he made a number of excursions into England, Holland, and particular parts of Germany; teaching, as he went along, the universal and saving light of Christ, sometimes vocally, but as often, we may suppose, by what he seems to have considered the far more powerful manner, expressive silence. In these peregrinations, the details of which, had they been preserved, would have been deeply interesting, he was on some occasions accompanied by the famous William Penn, and probably also by others of the brethren.

The first of his publications in the order of time was, "Truth cleared of Calumnies, occasioned by a book entitled, A Dialogue between a Quaker and a Stable Christian, written by the Rev. William Mitchell, a minister or preacher in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen." "The Quakers," says a defender of the Scottish church, "were, at this time, only newly risen up; they were, like every new sect, obtrusively forward; some of their tenets were of a startling, and some of them of an incomprehensible kind, and to the rigid presbyterians especially, they were exceedingly offensive. Hearing these novel opinions, not as simply stated and held by the Quakers, who were, generally speaking, no great logicians, but in their remote consequences, they regarded them with horror, and in the heat of their zeal, it must be confessed, often lost sight both of charity and truth. They thus gave their generally passive opponents great advantages over them. Barclay, who was a man of great talents, was certainly in this instance successful in refuting many false charges, and rectifying many forced constructions that had been put upon parts of their practice, and, upon the whole, setting the character of his silent brethren in a more favourable light than formerly, though he was far from having demonstrated, as these brethren fondly imagined, ‘the soundness and scripture verity of their principles.’" This publication was dated at Ury, the 19th of the second Month, 1670, and in the eleventh month of the same year, he added to it, by way of appendix, "Some things of weighty concernment proposed in meekness and love, by way of queries, to the serious consideration of the inhabitants of Aberdeen, which also may be of use to such as are of the same mind with them elsewhere in this nation." These queries, twenty in number, were more particularly directed to Messrs David Lyal, George Meldrum, and John Menzies, the ministers of Aberdeen who had, not only from the pulpit, forbidden their people to read the aforesaid treatise, but had applied to the magistrates of Aberdeen to suppress it. Mitchell wrote a reply to "Truth cleared of calumnies," and, on the 24th day of the tenth Month, 1671, Barclay finished a rejoinder at Ury, under the title of "William Mitchell unmasked, or the staggering instability of the pretended stable Christian discovered; his omissions observed, and weakness unvailed," &c. This goes over the same ground with the former treatise, and is seasoned with several severe strokes of sarcasm against these Aberdonians, who, "notwithstanding they had sworn to avoid a detestable neutrality, could now preach under the bishop, dispense with the doxology, forbear lecturing and other parts of the Directorial discipline, at the bishop’s order, and yet keep a reserve for presbytery in case it came again in fashion." He also turns some of William Mitchell’s arguments against himself with great ingenuity, though still he comes far short of establishing his own theory. It is worthy of remark, that, in this treatise, he has frequent recourse to Richard Baxter’s aphorisms on justification, whose new law scheme of the gospel seems to have been very much to the taste of the Quaker. It appears to have been on the appearance of this publication that, "for a sign and wonder to the generation," he walked through the chief streets of the city of Aberdeen, clothed in sackcloth and ashes; on which occasion he published (in 1672) a "Seasonable warning and serious exhortation to, and expostulation with, the inhabitants of Aberdeen, concerning this present dispensation and day of God’s living visitation towards them."

His next performance was, "A Catechism and Confession of Faith," the answers to the questions being all in the express words of Scripture; and the preface to it is dated, "From Ury, the place of my being, in my native country of Scotland, the 11th of the sixth month, 1673." This was followed by "The Anarchy of the Ranters," &c.

We now come to his great work, "An Apology for the true Christian Divinity, as the same is held forth and preached by the people called in scorn, Quakers: Being a full explanation and vindication of their principles and doctrines, by many arguments deduced from Scripture and right reason, and the testimonies of famous authors, both ancient and modern; with a fall answer to the strongest objections usually made against them. Presented to the King. Written and published in Latin for the information of strangers, by Robert Barclay, and now put into our own language for the benefit of his countrymen." The epistle to the King, prefixed to this elaborate work, is dated, "From Ury, the place of my pilgrimage, in my native country of Scotland, the 25th of the month called November, 1675." This epistle is not a little curious, among other things, for the ardent anticipations which the writer indulges with regard to the increase and future prevalence of the doctrines of the Quakers, which he calls, "the gospel now again revealed after a long and dark night of apostacy, and commanded to be preached to all nations." After some paragraphs, sufficiently complimentary to the peaceable habits of his silence-loving brethren, he tells his majesty that "generations to come will not more admire that singular step of Divine Providence, in restoring thee to thy throne without bloodshed, than they shall admire the increase and progress of this truth without all outward help, and against so great opposition, which shall be none of the least things rendering thy memory remarkable." In looking back upon the atrocities that marked the reign of Charles II., the growth of Quakerism is scarcely ever thought of, and the sufferings of its professors are nearly invisible, by reason of the far greater sufferings of another branch of the Christian church. Though led by his enthusiasm in his own cause to overrate it, Barclay certainly had no intention of flattering the King. "God," he goes on to tell him, "hath done great things for thee; he hath sufficiently shown thee that it is by him princes rule, and that he can pull down and set up at his pleasure. Thou hast tasted of prosperity and adversity; thou knowest what it is to be banished thy native country, to be overruled as well as to rule and sit upon the throne, and being oppressed thou hast reason to know how hateful the oppressor is, both to God and man. If after all these warnings and advertisements, thou dost not turn unto the Lord with all thy heart, but forget him who remembered thee in thy distress, and give up thyself to lust and vanity, surely great will be thy condemnation."

The Apology is a most elaborate work, indicating no small portion of both talent and learning. It contains, indeed, the sum of the author’s thoughts in those treatises we have already mentioned, as well as in those which he afterwards published, digested into fifteen propositions, in which are included all the peculiar notions of the sect:—Immediate Revelation; the Universal Spiritual light; Silent worship; Perfection; the Rejection of the Sabbath and the Sacraments, &c., &c. This is done with great apparent simplicity, and many plausible reasons, a number of excellent thoughts being struck out by the way; yet they are far from being satisfactory, and never will be so to any who are not already strongly possessed with an idea of the internal light in man, to which the author holds even the Scriptures themselves to be subordinate. There are, indeed, in the book, many sophisms, many flat contradictions, and many assertions that are incapable of any proof. The appeals which he makes to his own experience for the proof of his doctrines are often not a little curious, and strongly illustrative of his character, as well as of the principles he had esponsed.

The same year in which he published the Apology, he published an account of a dispute with the students of Aberdeen, which touches little besides the folly of such attempts to establish truth or confute error. The following year, in conjunction with George Keith, he put forth a kind of second part to the foregoing article, which they entitled, "Quakerism Confirmed, being an answer to a pamphlet by the Aberdeen students, entitled, Quakerism Canvassed." This treats only of matters to be found in a better form in the Apology. In the first month of the year 1677, from Aberdeen prison, he wrote his treatise of "Universal Love," and in the end of the same year, he wrote, from his house at Ury, "An Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice to the Ambassadors of the several princes of Europe, met at Nimeguen, to consult the peace of Christendom so far as they are concerned; wherein the true cause of the present war is discovered, and the right remedy and means for a firm and settled peace is proposed." This last was written in Latin, but published also in English for the benefit of his countrymen. Both of the above tracts deserve serious perusal. In 1679, he published a vindication of his Apology, and in 1686, his last work, "The possibility and necessity of the inward and immediate revelation of the Spirit of God towards the foundation and ground of true faith; in a letter to a person of quality in Holland," published both in Latin and English. In neither of these, in our opinion, has he added anything to his Apology, which, as we have already said, contains the sum of all that he has written or published.

In the latter part of his life, Barclay obtained, by the influence of his talents and the sincerity and simplicity of his character and professions, an exemption from that persecution which marked his early years. He had also contributed in no small degree, by the eloquence of his writings in defence of the Friends, to procure for them a considerable share of public respect. He is even found, strangely enough, to have latterly possessed some influence at the dissolute court of Charles II. In 1679, he obtained a charter from this monarch, under the great seal, erecting his lands of Ury, [His father had died in 1676, leaving him in possession of this estate.] into a free barony, with civil and criminal jurisdiction to him and his heirs. This charter was afterwards ratified by an act of Parliament, the preamble of which states it to be "for the many services done by Colonel David Barclay, and his son, the said Robert Barclay, to the King and his most royal progenitors in times past." Another and more distinguished mark of court favour was conferred upon him in 1682, when he received the nominal appointment of governor of East Jersey, in North America, from the proprietors of that province, of whom his friend the Earl of Perth was one. He was also himself made a proprietor, and had allotted to him five thousand acres of land above his proprietary share, as inducements for his acceptance of the dignity, which, at the same time, he was permitted to depute. The royal commission confirming this grant states, that such are his known fidelity and capacity, that he has the government during life, but that no other governor after him shall have it for more than three years. One of his brothers settled in the province, but he never visited it himself. In this year we find him assisting the Laird of Swinton with his interest and purse at Edinburgh; thus answering practically and freely the apostolic expostulation (1 Cor. ix. 11.), by permitting Swinton to reap carnal things, who had sown spiritual things to his family.

The remainder of his life is not marked with many instances of public action. Much of it appears to have been passed in tranquillity, and in the bosom of his family; yet he occasionally undertook journeys to promote his private concerns, to serve his relations and neighbours, or to maintain the cause of his brethren in religious profession. He was in London in 1685, and had frequent access to King James II., who had all along evinced a warm friendship towards him. Barclay, on the other hand, thinking James sincere in his faith, and perhaps influenced a little by the flattery of a prince’s favour, appears to have conceived a real regard for this misguided and imprudent monarch. Liberty of conscience having been conceded to the Friends on the accession of James II, Barclay exerted his influence to procure some parliamentary arrangement, by which they might be exempted from the harsh and ruinous prosecutions to which they were exposed, in consequence of their peculiar notions as to the exercise of the law. He was again in London, on this business, in 1686, on which occasion he visited the seven bishops, then confined in the Tower, for having refused to distribute in their respective dioceses the king’s declaration for liberty of conscience, and for having represented to the King the grounds of their objection to the measure. The popular opinion was in favour of the bishops; yet the former severities of some of the episcopal order against dissenters, particularly against the Friends, occasioned some reflections on them. This having come to the knowledge of the imprisoned bishops, they declared that, "the Quakers had belied them, by reporting that they had been the death of some." Robert Barclay, being informed of this declaration, went to the Tower, and gave their lordships a well-substantiated account of some persons having been detained in prison till death, by order of bishops, though they had been apprised of the danger by physicians who were not Quakers. He, however, observed to the bishops, that it was by no means the intention of the Friends to publish such events, and thereby give the king, and their other adversaries, any advantage against them. Barclay was in London, for the last time, in the memorable year 1688. He visited James II., and being with him near a window, the king looked out, and observed that, "the wind was then fair for the prince of Orange to come over." Robert Barclay replied, "it was hard that no expedient could be found to satisfy the people." The king declared, "he would do any thing becoming a gentleman, except parting with liberty of conscience, which he never would whilst he lived." At that time Barclay took a final leave of the unfortunate king, for whose disasters he was much concerned, and with whom he had been several times engaged in serious discourse at that time.

Robert Barclay "laid down the body," says Andrew Jaffray, "in the holy and honourable truth, wherein he had served it about three and twenty years, upon the 3rd day of the eighth month, 1690, near the forty and second year of his age, at his own house of Urie, in Scotland, and it was laid in his own burial ground there, upon the 6th day of the same month, before many friends and other people." His character has been thus drawn by another of the amicable fraternity to which he belonged:— [A short account of the Life and Writings of Robert Barclay, London, 1802.]

"He was distinguished by strong mental powers, particularly by great penetration, and a sound and accurate judgment. His talents were much improved by a regular and classical education. It does not, however, appear that his superior qualifications produced that elation of mind, which is too often their attendant: he was meek, humble, and ready to allow to others the merit they possessed. All his passions were under the most excellent government. Two of his intimate friends, in their character of him, declare that they never knew him to be angry. He had the happiness of early perceiving the infinite superiority of religion to every other attainment; and the Divine grace enabled him to dedicate his life, and all that he possessed, to promote the cause of piety and virtue. For the welfare of his friends he was sincerely and warmly concerned: and he travelled and wrote much, as well as suffered cheerfully, in support of the society and the principles to which he had conscientiously attached himself. But this was not a blind and bigoted attachment. His zeal was tempered with charity; and he loved and respected goodness wherever he found it. His uncorrupted integrity and liberality of sentiment, his great abilities and suavity of disposition, gave him much interest with persons of rank and influence, and he employed it in a manner that marked the benevolence of his heart. He loved peace, and was often instrumental in settling disputes, and in producing reconciliations between contending parties.

"In support and pursuit of what he believed to be right, he possessed great firmness of mind; which was early evinced in the pious and dutiful sentiment he expressed to his uncle, who tempted him with great offers to remain in France, against the desire of his father: ‘He is my father,’ said he, ‘and he must be obeyed.’ All the virtues harmonize, and are connected with one another: this firm and resolute spirit in the prosecution of duty, was united with great sympathy and compassion towards persons in affliction and distress. They were consoled by his tenderness, assisted by his advice, and occasionally relieved by his bounty. His spiritual discernment and religious experience, directed by that Divine influence which he valued above all things, eminently qualified him to instruct the ignorant, to reprove the irreligious, to strengthen the feebleminded, and to animate the advanced Christian to still greater degrees of virtue and holiness.

"In private life he was equally amiable. His conversation was cheerful, guarded, and instructive. He was a dutiful son, an affectionate and faithful husband, a tender and careful father, a kind and considerate master. Without exaggeration, it may be said, that piety and virtue were recommended by his example: and that, though the period of his life was short, he had, by the aid of Divine grace, most wisely and happily improved it. He lived long enough to manifest, in an eminent degree, the temper and conduct of a Christian, and the virtues and qualifications of a true minister of the gospel."


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