Seven weeks ago, after days of prayer and fasting, a little-known Norfolk car dealer and city councilman announced that he was going to be the next U.S. senator from Virginia. The Lord in Heaven told him to run, he says, and despite his wish to stay a "private person," he has followed the Lord's will.

Publicly, the seven other candidates in the race said little. Privately, there was, shall we say, some tittering.

They aren't laughing any more.

This past week, when the candidates seeking to run as delegates to the Democratic state convention were counted. Colony Phillips, 46, had made a respectable showing. Although the number of Democrats "prefiling" as delegates committed to a candidate is only a rough indicator of the candidate's strength going into the June convention, the apparently amount of Colony Phillips support has caused his opponents more than mild concern.

In only seven weeks he picked up more committed delegate candidates in Fairfax County than Fred Babson, who was once the chairman of the county's Board of Supervisors. Babson got 46, Phillips 105. Phillips picked up 31 in Arlington - only 15 fewer than the former state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Andrew P. Miller.

Colony Phillips is not ahead in Fairfax and Arlington - Clive DuVal has 400 delegates candidates to Phillips 136 - but he is fourth in a field of seven as the Democrats prepare to elect actual delegates at mass meetings all over the state this Saturday.

"The Lord is really raising up the people," campaign director Jerry Tiahrt said gleefully. "We're trusting the Lord to turn the people out on Saturday." Tiahrt was until recently an Air Force major stationed at the Pentagon. "I gave up a $500,000 retirement to join this campaign because the Lord called me to this ministry," he said.

Because the important thing at Saturday's mass meetings is for a candidate to turn out as many supporters as possible to elect delegates to the nominating convention. Phillips says his strategy has been quite simple: concentrate on the Christian community" and persuade it to attend and support him. In most cases this mean people who have not previously been involved in local politics.

"I told the Democrats I'd come around and see them after the 15th," he explained during an interview in his $1,050-a-month campaign office in a Norfolk shopping center. "Right now I'm selling myself to the church community . . . That's my strategy. Then June to November I'm going to sell myself to the voters."

"He's a phenomenon in the campaign because no one knows what to expect," said one local party activist. "He could totally alter the outcome of the convention."

An example of Phillips' strategy was evident in the number of delegate-hopefuls who "prefiled" for him in Fairfax County's Lee District. Of the 27 Phillips candidates, as many as half may belong to the Metropolitan Christian Center, where Tiahrt is an associate pastor, according to a Phillips strategist. Virginia Beach, where Phillips outran Fred Babson, who lives there, with 112 delegates to Babson's 96, is the home of at least two large Baptist congregations. Tiahrt expects Phillips to have between 200 and 300 of the 2,795 convention delegates after Saturday's elections.

The question uppermost in other campaign camps is who, if anyone, Phillips will throw his delegates to, both at Saturday's mass meetings and at the convention itself.

"We're still asking the Lord about what He'd have us do there," Tiahrt said. "We haven't decided."

However, campaign consultant Ed Mabry said that Phillips' coordinators around the state will receive sealed envelopes containing Phillips' decision on what to do that they must not open until Saturday morning. "There is no blanket policy," Mabry said. "In some cases we may decide to support another candidate, in some areas we'll just go home, and in some cases we'll barter for delegates."

The other candidates in the race aside from DuVal, Miller, and Babson, are former Fairfax delegate Carrington Williams, state Sen. Hunter B. Andrews, feminist Flora Crater, and former Fairfax County supervisor Rufus Phillips.

Mabry is perhaps the only person on Colony Phillips' all-volunteer staff who is not "born again." The press secretary is a woman who left her reporting job on the leading Norfolk paper to join the campaign, and "miracles" happen every day to bring people into the campaign, Phillips said.

"How long have you been a Christian?" he asked a young man doing paper work in the campaign office. "Five months," he answered. "I left a job as a political science teacher in Kentucky to work for the Lord."

The campaign headquarters includes a "prayer room," Phillips said, where workers gather to pray. "In many ways they're more like church meetings than political meetings," he said. "This office, this is run somewhat like any other political office, but it's first a ministry, what I'm doing is first a ministry and secondly a campaign." He expects to spend as much as $50,000 of his own money before the convention.

Phillips "came to know the Lord" in the late 1960s, he said, and heard his first call to enter politics two years ago when he ran for the city council. He describes himself as an Evangelical Christian, a movement that includes several denominations and means, he said, "That I like to tell people about a man named Jesus Christ and proclaim him as the son of God. I guess it means I'm a little more of an activist, that I want to share what I've found."

There are an estimated 45.5 million Evangelicals in the country, the second largest religious group after Roman Catholics.

Phillips, who is now worth about $1.5 million from his successful Lincoln-Mercury car dealership and real estate, is the son of a Woolworth's store manager. He and his brother opened a car dealership in Norfolk in 1957 (the brother has since opened his own business) and became well known in a series of commercials in which they impersonated famous brothers.

In his two years on the city council, he said he has been most proud of his work on the budget, although he has received local publicity for pushing for a law that requires merchants to keep "soft pornography" under the counter.

He has not taken positions on many issues so far, he said, because he hasn't had time to study them. Nor is he sure why the Lord called him to be a Democrat instead of a Republican or an Independent, as he initially wanted to be (The Norfolk City Council is nonpartisan.)

"I just have to say again it was the result of prayers," he said, smiling.

Phillips is a slight, graying man with a gentle manner and a soft voice. He views his campaign as a ministry to get Christian people involved in politics and government, which they have viewed for too long as "unclean," he said.

Phillips says that only one of the other candidates (Miller) is any more well known than he is, and that the problems of the federal government are more closely aligned to the problems of cities than anything else, and that he is experienced with those problems.

His business, as well as his life, has prospered since he found the Lord, he said. "I'm not a religious fanatic," he said. "The Lord is very practical."