Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous Combustion


. . . the tongue is a little member . . . Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire ... it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell  (James 3:5-6).

Purpose of the Illustration

  1. To point out the evil of gossiping.

  2. To impress upon the audience the necessity of watching their conversation.


  1. A pane of glass or a small piece of smooth tin.

  2. A round bottle or a small rolling pin or any round object that is smooth.

  3. A piece of sheet metal large enough to hold several small cones of the chemical.

  4. A knife or instrument with which you can make little piles of the chemical.

  5. A medicine dropper.


  1. From 2 to 10 spoonfuls of potassium permanganate. (The amount will depend upon the number of fires you wish to start.)

  2. A small bottle of glycerin.

Method of Procedure

  1. Place the potassium permanganate on the pane of glass or the piece of tin, and pulverize it with the rolling pin or the bottle. You may do this before coming to the platform, but it is better, if time permits, to let the audience see you perform the experiment from beginning to end. When you begin to speak you can be rolling the chemical.

  2. Take two spoonfuls of this pulverized chemical and build a small cone-shaped pile. Your experiment will be more impressive if you build several of these piles.   Build them one by one, talking as you do so.

  3. In the top of each pile, make a little crater, large enough to hold from 10 to 12 drops of glycerin.

  4. Into the first crater put 10 to 12 drops of the glycerin as you continue to speak.

  5. When the first cone bursts into flame, put glycerin into another crater, and the next and so on to the end as the cone preceding explodes or bursts into flame.  By this means the suspense is heightened.

  6. Finally cover each glycerin-filled crater with the chemical. Do this in order, immediately after the pre­vious one bursts into flame.

Chemical Reaction

  1. Shortly after you have covered the glycerin with the chemical, the cone will spontaneously burst into flame.


  1. Be careful to keep the potassium permanganate off your hands as it will stain them, or anything white, a deep brown which is difficult to remove. However, a solution of oxalic acid will remove the stain.

  2. Since the potassium permanganate is poisonous, great caution should be exercised in disposing o£ any which may be left on the pane of glass or the piece of tin on which the chemical was pulverized. This caution is true especially since there may be small children present who may want to eat it.

  3. Practice the experiment at home so that you will be able to time the explosions. The timing is very essential, but by practice it is possible to space the explosions at regular intervals.

  4. If you want to create a greater degree of interest or suspense name each pile or cone, and as each one explodes remark, "Mrs. So and So, or Brother Tongue-in-the-cheek or Miss Walkie-Talkie just exploded," etc.

The walkie-talkie is one of the world's greatest inventions. It is a small two-way radio set which can both receive and send messages, and is so small that it can be carried easily by a soldier, a forest ranger, or any other person in need of such accomodations.

But everyone has a little member which we might call a fire-starting instrument, because it literally causes spontaneous combustion. In other words it spouts fire. That is what James says of the tongue.

Instead of a walkie-talkie some people have a waggie-talkie. It has been said that perpetual motion is al­ready a reality if you consider how some folk use their tongues with the regularity of a trip hammer.

During the talk lay out the equipment, pulverize the chemicals and prepare for the experiment. If you desire, you may describe each part of the equipment, but do not tell the people what to expect. Merely caution them to have their eyes fixed on the chemical cones. To tell them what to expect lessens interest and destroys the suspense.

Now I am going to show you what some people's tongues are like. Build the mounds and name them. Has anyone a good name for a walkie-talkie—someone who talks too much and too often, who gossips and spreads suspicion? As the congregation names the cones, be sure to keep the names in mind, or write them on small cards and place beside the cones. When you have built all the cones, and put glycerin in the first, begin to speak about the evil of gossiping.

Many persons in the church do not mean any harm when they spread stories injurious to the good name of others, but these persons are assuredly setting little fires that will burst into flame. Often a man's or a woman's reputation is ruined by such stories—stories that are little fires set by walkie-talkie tongues.

There goes Sister Tongue-wagger—point to the first cone as it bursts into flame. Fill the second with glycerin. You know that there is a national organization known as Tail Waggers? It is made up of people who own and love dogs. Sometimes it seems that it would be appropriate to have a church group called Tongue Waggers, and every church member that talks too much and says unkind things about others should be forced to join the association.

Gossiping is a sin, a fire-starter in a church, and most church quarrels start over the little fires which are caused by evil talking. The tongue should be controlled by prayer and instead of bursting into flame like these cones, it should be turned to the work of creating good will in the organization. It is as easy to employ the tongue in constructive measures as to use it to destroy truth, wreck reputations and tear down what others are trying to accomplish.

As the cones burst into flame describe an imaginary scene in which a busybody is active in tearing down a person's reputation. This adds life to your talk.

In the establishment of good will on the radio, it is estimated that one criticism of the program or product should be offset by fifteen hundred acts of praise. And the power of the program is calculated in the proportion of one to fifteen hundred. For every two letters received which criticize the program, the sponsors expect three thousand letters or postcards praising it.

In other words, radio advertisers believe that the spontaneous fire started by one person, who feels so strongly against the program as to write a fault-finding letter can be put out or offset by fifteen hundred persons who start good fires of praise.

In Christian work this is also true. One person who will talk freely against a plan or program in the church can so easily tear down the constructive work that it is almost impossible to achieve any results.

The tongue can also start fires which do good as well as evil. The modern missionary program started when William Carey and a few other ministers began to talk among themselves about the possibility of converting the heathen. The fire began to spread until at last an organization was started which sent Carey to India.

In America the same "little member," as James called it, was instrumental in starting missionary work in the churches. A handful of college students were crossing a field to an oak where they were to hold a prayer meeting, when a rain overtook them and they sought shelter under a haystack.

"It can be done," said one, to which another added, "The heathen can be evangelized." The students talked long and earnestly and then they prayed about the matter of becoming missionaries. After that they talked in college, in churches, and at last before a ministers' meeting when they demanded and pleaded to be sent to foreign fields.

The time came when the fires, set by their tongues, burst into flame, and the idea of missions gripped the early American churches. Among the first group of missionaries to reach foreign lands were Adoniram and Ann Judson, who achieved such brilliant results for Christ in Burma.

The combustive fires, set by good tongues, reached to marvelous heights of Christian service.

Talk, speak, plead, use your tongue excessively but do so in support of that which is right, pure, and' constructive. Then God's blessing will be upon this little fire-starter.

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