The preacher couldn't believe it. For him it was an awful disclosure. The local public library owned several copies of Philip Roth's award-winning "Goodbye, Columbus."

"I was startled, shocked, amazed and perplexed," recalls the Rev. Tom Williams, who has a bumper sticker on his car that says "God Is in Control."

Williams sprang into action: "I went to the library and found out what was going on. What the library has turned out to be is a dispenser of hard-core pornography at public expense."

The Baptist preacher's revelation has sparked an unprecedented brouhaha here in this Southwest Virginia farming community over the proposed banning of so-called "hard-core porn" books from the Washington County Public Library. The preacher has accused the head librarian of feloniously corrupting the minds of children. The librarian, in turn, has accused the preacher of stealing a book. The preacher has attempted to publish naughty excerpts from library books in the local newspaper. The newspaper editor has refused to publish the excerpts, and calls the preacher a "nipplehead."

The censorship demands have provoked embarrassed and angry reactions among hundreds of local residents who defend the library and accuse the preacher and his supporters of trying to dictate morality.

The book-banning battle in Abingdon, according to the American Library Association, is part of a recent nationwide assault on rural and suburban libraries by fundamentalist and conservative political groups purporting to protect decent people from anti-American, anti-Christian literature.

Since the November election, there has been a five-fold increase in complaints from libraries across the county about attempted censorship, says Judy Klug, director of the Chicago-based Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. Klug says most of those seeking to ban books have identified themselves to local librarians as members of Moral Majority-type organizations.

"The only thing I can tell is what happened in November. The number of problems reported to this office increased five times" from about five complaints a week to about five a day, says Klug, who represents the largest library association in the country. "It could have been a fluke or it could have been a direct result of the election. The only thing I'm trying to do is keep our heads above water and help out the libraries."

In Wapakoneta, Ohio, parents of a 10th grader are seeking to have Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" banned from the high school curriculum. In North Carolina, a man who claimed to represent the Moral Majority, has complained to the Department of Education about Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." In Utah -- a state assailed over the last year by the library censorship demands of groups with names like "Citizens for True Freedom" -- books have been pulled off library shelves and a librarian has been suspended.

Dennis Day, director of the Salt Lake City Public Library and president of the Utah Library Association, sees the recent increase in attempts to censor libraries as muscle-flexing by rightists emboldened by the election of Ronald Reagan and a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

"There is a growing feeling by some of the people in these conservative organizations that they have a mandate now. They see the election as a blank check to become bibliographic vigilantes," says Day.

Here in Washington County, Williams, and his cohort, Bobby Sproles, a former owner of "Bobby's Market" and now chairman of the county board of supervisors, refuse to describe themselves as vigilantes, but they do say the November election has increased their self-confidence.

"The majority of society is now turning away from permissiveness," claims Williams, 59, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church here. "We need some absolutes. That's one of the cries of the people who elected Reagan and others who took a strong position on the family."

This county of 40,000, however, was receptive to the public moralizing of Williams and Sproles before Reagan's election. Back in 1974 when Sproles was still running Bobby's Market, he led a grass-roots movement that forced the school board to replace the "Responding" series of high school textbooks, which Sproles said was disrespectful and antireligious. h

Riding the textbook issue and using campaign literature bearing a cross and the American flag, Sproles was elected to the board of supervisors in 1975. As a crusader for morality and the "average man," he was reelected in 1979 and was chosen chairman by his colleagues on the board of supervisors.

One senior elected official here, who says it would be political suicide to speak publicly, says Sproles has an instinctive political feel "for a region where peoples' religion is very basic, very much a part of their lives."

Examples of the strength of fundamental Christianity abound. Sproles and Williams last year pressured the school board to include "scientific creationism" as part of high school biology courses. Playboy magazine is virtually unavailable in the county because of recent convictions of three local merchants for selling sexually explicit magazines. (It was while sitting in on an appeal of the conviction that Williams heard about the library's possession of "Goodbye, Columbus.") Even public phone booths here are stocked with religious pamphlets proclaiming, among other things, that this is "Your Last Warning."

Sproles, Williams and 31 other Baptist preachers now are demanding that "Goodbye, Columbus," Harold Robbins' "The Lonely Lady" and Sidney Sheldon's "Bloodline" be yanked off library shelves. Sproles claims he is not against the right of adults to read these books, but is challenging the expenditure of taxpayers' money on "low, gutter-type utterances."

The book-banning offensive, which could come to a climax next month with a vote by the board of supervisors on sproles' threat to cut library funding, has been condemned by a broad range of local organizations including the Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Moose, Jaycees, Civitan Club and the Washington County Ministerial Association.

At a recent meeting of the library board held at the request of Sproles and Williams to discuss the books, more than 200 local residents packed the library's meeting room to denounce censorship. Sproles and Williams, who had heard they would face a hostile audience, failed to show up. "I told the preacher there was no reason to go down and talk with them," Sproles explains.

When Williams did go down to the library earlier this fall, he took home "Goodbye, Columbus" without checking it out. Library director Kathy Russell was forced to call the preacher at home and ask him to come back to check it out. Later, after discovering other books that struck him as "indecent," Williams asked Russell for a list of all those who had borrowed them. The preacher says he told the librarian she may be guilty of a felony if the books were loaned to children.

Russell, a 23-year-old Abingdon native who has worked at the library only one year since graduating with a master's degree in library science from the University of Tennessee, refused to divulge the names of those who had checked out the books, citing a Virginia law exempting libraries from such disclosure.

The library board unanimously has supported Russell's action and her authority to buy books she thinks the community wants to read. Board chairman E. B. Stanley denounces Sproles' claim that elected officials have a higher authority than the librarian to determine what books to buy.

"If we followed Sproles' thinking, he would be making decisions for the Circuit Court judge. The judge isn't an elected official," Stanley says.

Sproles and Williams, who recognize the opposition of what they call "the liberal element in downtown Abingdon" (population 4,000), have called for a countywide referendum against books they consider dirty. Virginia election officials, however, say that such a referendum would not be permitted under state law without authorization from the General Assembly.

Lowry Bowman, editor and publisher of the Washington County News, says the book-banning issue is no different here than in other communities across the country.

"This happens to be one small pimple in a national sore," says Bowman, who has lambasted censorship in his editorials. "I think Sproles and Williams are appealing to a whole lot of frustration, a general feeling that we've lost control of things: If we can just restore prayer in the schools, Iran will go away; if we just can get rid of dirty books, the Russians will back down.

"But I resent it. Sure it sells papers, but this is my town. I'm embarrassed."