Frank Church, an eloquent and independent voice in the Senate for nearly a quarter of a century who called for compassion at home and courageous common sense abroad, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Bethesda. He was 59.

He represented Idaho as a Democrat in the Senate for 24 years before leaving office in January 1981 following his defeat by Republican Steven D. Symms.

Sen. Church was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during his last two years in the Senate.

Sen. Church probably became best known as a longtime critic of American policy in Southeast Asia. He began speaking against the Vietnam War in 1963, long before it was fashionable in conservative states such as Idaho, or even among liberal Democrats.

He said that the war was not aggression by proxy from China or Moscow but an indigenous revolution, led by a man--Ho Chi Minh--who appeared to be the only true Vietnamese leader on the scene. He also had said that in fighting the war, this nation's executive branch was exercising war-making powers that belong to Congress.

In 1970, Sen. Church co-authored with Sen. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) the Cooper-Church amendment that placed the first limits on expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, by exerting congressional authority over the purse-strings.

After American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, he co-authored with Sen. Clifford Chase (R-N.J.) the Case-Church amendment that put an end to American bombing in Cambodia by cutting off further funds.

He left his mark on legislation that included civil rights, the environment and cost-of-living payments for the elderly.

But in the 1970s, Sen. Church's name became synonymous with several of the Senate's most far-reaching investigations, which he directed. One, by the Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, revealed that the International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. and the CIA had discussed the possibility of financing covert effort to prevent the 1970 election of Chilean President Salvador Allende.

That subcomittee also exposed bribery of foreign officials by major U.S. corporations and an Arab blacklist of Jewish and reputedly pro-Israel businesses.

That assignment was followed in 1975 by appointment to head the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, set up to investigate abuses of power by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

The select committee disclosed that the CIA had developed toxins for military use, had plotted the assassinations of foreign heads of government, and illegally spied on Americans, and that the FBI had harassed various dissident groups and staged illegal break-ins of homes and offices. Its findings led to the creation of a permanent committee to oversee the FBI and CIA.

But the term of the select committee, originally nine months, grew to 15, and caused a fatal delay in Sen. Church's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. He won four primaries, but withdrew from the race and endorsed Jimmy Carter.

His years as Foreign Relations chairman were less successful. Although he had helped guide the Panama Canal Treaty through the Senate, he was unable to gain ratification for a strategic arms pact negotiated with the Soviet Union by the Carter administration. He personally had opposed ratification for a time when the existence of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba was revealed.

Over the years, he gained the approval of Idaho's voters as an unyielding champion of water interests vital to agriculture. Although he voted for much of the liberal agenda of the Johnson administration, he departed from that fold at crucial times. He was against abortion and was a leading voice against gun control.

He also was chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging for eight years and had been an early advocate of financial disclosure. In 1964, he began making public his income and assets, and he sponsored a 1973 amendment that required such disclosures during congressional campaigns.

When Congress learned earlier this year that Sen. Church had cancer, it approved a bill naming 2.2 million acres of Idaho wilderness in his honor. The area is called The Frank Church River of No Return.

Upon learning of his death, President Reagan said Sen. Church "served his nation with distinction and dedication. His abiding interest in foreign policy made an important intellectual contribution to our nation."

Frank Forrester Church was born July 25, 1924, in Boise, Idaho, to Frank Forrester Church 2nd and Laura Bilderback Church. His father's occupation was owner of a sporting goods store and his hobby was politics. A strong believer in the conservative branch of the Republican Party, he detested the domestic policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

To stimulate debate at the dinner table and to further the future senator's education, the elder Church encouraged his son to study history and politics at the library. This enabled the younger Church to argue the "Democratic" side in debates with his father.

Perhaps those debates led to Sen. Church's victory in 1941 in the American Legion's national oratory contest. He won a scholarship that took him to Stanford University. However, it also changed his life in another way. Sen. Church later recalled to a reporter, "I decided, much to Dad's consternation, that he belonged to the wrong party."

He interrupted his studies at Stanford in 1942 to become an Army intelligence officer in the China-India-Burma theater, but returned to the university after the war and earned a bachelor's degree in 1947.

He entered Harvard Law School, but transferred to Stanford's law school in hopes that the warm California weather would ease the chronic pain he had developed in his lower back.

Instead doctors diagnosed incurable cancer of the abdomen and lymph nodes and predicted death within six months. His weight plunged to 80 pounds. Another doctor disagreed with the terminal diagnosis and prescribed X-ray treatments that led to Church's recovery. He earned his law degree with his class in 1950.

On June 21, 1947, he married his high school sweetheart, Jean Bethine Clark. Her father was Chase A. Clark, a Democrat who was Idaho's governor in 1941 and 1942 and later was a U.S. District Court judge. In 1956, Sen. Church was a lawyer whose only try for elective office, to the state legislature four years earlier, had ended in defeat.

Yet his father-in-law, and others, believed he had a chance to capture a seat in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Church first ran against Glen Taylor, a former senator who had run for vice president on Henry Wallace's Progressive Party ticket in 1948. He beat Taylor by 170 votes. In the 1956 general election he faced incumbent Sen. Herman Welker, a McCarthyite. Sen. Church won a fairly easy victory.

Upon arriving in Washington, he became a protege of then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. After helping Johnson on several crucial votes, including sponsorship of key civil rights legislation in the 1950s, Johnson helped him gain seats on the old Interior Committee, crucial to a senator from a western state, and on Foreign Relations. At age 36, Sen. Church stepped into the national spotlight as keynote speaker at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

After Johnson became president and Sen. Church began opposing the war in Vietnam, many believed his Senate days were numbered. But Sen. Church went on winning. In a 1976 interview, his 1964 Republican opponent, Jack Hawley, revealed that he had voted for Sen. Church ever since his own race.

Since 1981, Sen. Church had practiced law in Washington with the firm of Whitman & Ransom.

In addition to his wife, of Bethesda, survivors include two sons, Forrest, of New York City, and Chase, of Bethesda, and two grandchildren.