The end came for the congregation in 1951, on the Sunday the pastor delivered what came to be referred to as "the Sodom and Gomorrah speech."

Details are sketchy, but as Shirley Triplett delicately put it recently, "The kids were crying and screaming. The women were shocked. In those days, you never heard in mixed company the word 'incest.' "

For about 35 years, that was pretty much that for the Pleasant Vale Baptist Church, whose congregation first met Nov. 13, 1799, in far northern Fauquier County, more than 50 miles from Washington.

The congregation's numbers dwindled to five, then four, then three.

But then the fortunes began to turn around at the splendid old brick Greek Revival Baptist church with the roof of red tin.

The first thing that happened was that Daniel Heath de Butts got annoyed at the Episcopal Church. "Back in 1979, when the Episcopal Church abandoned its old Book of Common Prayer for its new prayer book, I decided not to go along with it. If the old one was good enough to get my ancestors into Heaven, it was good enough for me. So I came here. There was a once-a-year service, at homecoming. That's all I needed."

So de Butts, 38, has become the informal historian and great champion of Pleasant Vale, taking as his mission its salvation.

Then in 1985, Mary Berry Marshall died, bequeathing money for the restoration of the old church. She was a member of the Marshall family that includes local favorite-son John Marshall, chief justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835 and one of America's greatest jurists. The market town of Marshall in northern Fauquier is named for him, and there is a statue in his honor in Warrenton.

The three members the congregation do not wish to publicize the size of the the bequest but said it is more than the typical Baptist minister is paid in a year and enough to start making some repairs, such as fixing the hole in the roof and painting the inside. The next project is to repair termite damage to the floors.

De Butts is working on getting a minister to preach at the church, although he acknowledged that he talked to one and that "he kind of led me to believe that he would rather not." At the most recent service, held in September, only 12 people showed up.

However, that does not appear to be as important to the other members of the congregation as the careful preservation of the past -- their families' past. "For me," said de Butts, that means "going back on the Ashby line -- that's nine generations."

"Going back one generation short of Adam," joked Shirley Triplett.

"The only thing I'm really interested in," said her husband William Triplett, "is preserving the building and the grounds as a monument to what was."

William Triplett, 55, is one of the three current members of the church, along with de Butts and James L. Strother, 67.

The congregation was organized as the Goose Creek Baptist Church at the stone church in Farrowsville, which is now a part of Markham, on Nov. 14, 1799, according to de Butts' research.

The present church was built for less than $2,000 in the early 1840s. The first service in the building, renamed the Pleasant Vale Baptist Church, was on April 15, 1845, with dedication by Elder Ogilvie, assisted by Elders Dodger and Kingsford.

Services were held regularly during the Civil War, even though the area was in the middle of the region called the Mosby Confederacy -- the center of operations for John Singleton Mosby, known as "The Gray Ghost." His raids used irregular troops whose tactics prefigured modern guerrilla warfare. A monument to Mosby stands in Warrenton.

When de Butts or the Tripletts refer to "before the war" and "after the war," they are unselfconsciously referring to the Civil War.

"Great-great-grandfather John Jamieson Ashby -- who was a member of the church -- during the war was carted off as an old man, taken prisoner and put on the train at Delaplane and ridden up and down the rails to keep Mosby from getting hold of it," reminisced de Butts, as if it all happened yesterday.

"After the war, so many people lost a lot. But even whose who ate potato roots held on to their land," said Shirley Triplett. "The value of the land was it kept the families here. They still held their heads high, were still worthy of good marriages. There's always been a caste system here, in that sense. It separated the property owners from the workers."

It also separated the upper part of the county from other parts of the county. "You have Middleburg, which is money. Nouveau money. A lot of northern money. That kind of thing," sniffed Shirley Triplett. "In the North, you realize that money is your social stratum. But here it was always family. It was not how much money you had but your pedigree that separated the caste system."

Later, de Butts would refer to Middleburg residents, without a smile, as "Yankee carpetbaggers."

This is the world that is being preserved at the Pleasant Vale Baptist Church. There is a four-octave, 12-stop, foot-pumped organ that is in good tune. It is made of walnut and oak and has knee pedals.

Fluted columns hold up the balcony, in which slaves were allowed to pray. There is a separate door from the outside leading to the balcony stairs.

The floors are wide-board pine that boom and echo when trod.

The 11 rows of pews seem to be made of walnut and pine. Collection plates are wood with green felt pads to muffle the sound of coins. The cross is hand-carved.

Almost everything that was made of metal is gone -- presumably to thieves. Two stoves have been dismantled, and the chandeliers are gone.

De Butts -- if his last name sounds familiar, it might be because his relatives once ruled corporations such as AT&T and the Southern Railway -- brings red roses to the church.

And on the lectern before three massive wood thrones lays an 1892 Bible. This Bible says, in large letters, that it conforms "to the edition of 1611 commonly known as the authorized or King James version."

That date -- 1611 -- is three years after one of de Butts' ancestors arrived in Virginia. And de Butts -- who left the Episcopal Church of his forefathers to protest the modernizing of its prayer -- is at home.