SPRING HILL, TENN., JUNE 25 -- It was a revival meeting, replete with prayers, tents and gospel music. There were ministers aplenty, one of whom presided over an impromptu wedding. There were children everywhere, running through fields and playing on bales of hay, while their parents huddled in groups and talked about God, family, country -- and Saturn.

"It's unbelievable," said Richard "Skip" Lefauve, president of Saturn Corp., a small-car company that began as a laughable idea 12 years ago but has blossomed into a full-scale religion.

"Who would've thought? All of these people -- my God! All of these people are our customers," said Lefauve, looking at a crowd of 15,000 Saturn owners who had gathered here Friday for the first day of a "Saturn homecoming celebration." It was the company's first such gathering.

By the end of tonight's ceremonies, 28,000 Saturn owners and their families had shown up, nearly triple the population of this middle Tennessee town in which the automaker is located.

Some came from as far away as Taiwan, and others from as close as Nashville, about 30 miles north of Spring Hill. In a parking lot transformed into a sea of Saturns were license plates from Arizona and Alaska.

Many said they made the trip for three reasons: to see the 2,400-acre Saturn factory site, to meet the people who built their cars and to find out if the Saturn philosophy of "togetherness" and "teamwork" was hype or truth.

"Put it this way -- I've owned lots of cars and heard lots of tales from people who just wanted to make a sale," said Kirk Noland, 38, a corrections officer from Fayetteville, N.C. "But this is the first time a car company has invited me to come and see what they do. I had a few days off, so I took 'em up on it," said Noland, who made the almost 600-mile journey with his 11-year-old daughter, Dorothy, in his 1992 Saturn SL1 sedan.

"Salesmen will tell you anything, but after talking to these Saturn factory people and seeing how they work together, I believe they're for real," Noland said.

Noland paid about $400 to arrive at that conclusion, including $34 for his homecoming admission ticket, $17 for his daughter's, and $349 for lodging, food, souvenirs, gas and entertainment. "It was worth it," he said.

That is the kind of talk any automaker wants to hear, but it's especially dear to people at Saturn, whose company sprang from consumer disenchantment with the American car industry in general and General Motors Corp. in particular.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, GM, Saturn's parent company, seemed to be doing everything in its power to alienate customers. By its own, well-documented admission, the company's product quality was third-rate; its customer satisfaction ratings were in the pits; and GM was at a loss about what, if anything, it could do to match the Japanese in building cost-efficient, fuel-efficient, high-quality small cars.

In 1982, then-GM Chairman Roger B. Smith came up with what he called his "lulu" -- an initially whimsical, definitely expensive idea to start a new small-car company that would operate outside of the GM hierarchy.

The media initially praised Smith's move, but that adulation turned to derision as GM continued to lose money and market share, and as the estimated production price tag for Saturn rose to an astronomical $5 billion.

In the interim Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. -- even Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. -- were whipping GM silly with new, popular products developed at a fraction of Saturn's cost. Within GM, there was grumbling about giving so much money to Saturn at the expense of the company's traditional car divisions, such as Chevrolet and Buick.

When the first Saturn rolled off the line here in 1990, it was more an occasion of relief than celebration.

The company's start-up budget had been cut to $3.5 billion from $5 billion; its annual production numbers had been halved to 250,000 cars from 500,000 cars; and, to the chagrin of folks here, its projected payroll had been cut to 3,000 employees from 5,000.

Lefauve, the third president in Saturn's short history, was just happy to have a car to show.

"But Saturn is more than a car," Lefauve said back then. "It's an idea. It's a whole new way of doing things, of working with our customers and with one another. It's more of a cultural revolution than a product revolution." Many auto writers took his statements as an excuse for turning out cars that were good, but not exceptional.

However, according to many of the people gathered here, it is precisely that "revolutionary" idea that has generated more than 600,000 Saturn sales and that has commanded a cult-like customer loyalty once reserved for the likes of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"These people have taken care of us from the first day we bought our car," said Carol Baber of Atlanta, Kan., (population 150), who made the 896-mile trip with her husband, Kenneth, and their daughters Susan and Shawna and grandchild Cody.

"We have over 187,000 miles on our car," a 1991 Saturn SL2 sedan, Carol Baber said. "We haven't had any real problems, and whenever there was a recall or something, they really took care of us," she said.

"We've got to leave in time to make the homecoming celebration in Wichita," she said, referring to one of many smaller "homecomings" being staged at Saturn dealerships nationwide through mid-July.

Complaints? There were a few, including a man who implored Saturn interior assembly-line worker Gregory Sanderfer to "put more foam into the bottom of the seats on the base car."

Sanderfer shocked the customer by writing a note and contacting a factory representative, who said he would look into the complaint.

And there were larger concerns: Many Saturn customers seemed to know that Saturn was barely profitable, and they pummeled Lefauve with questions about whether GM would stick with the company. Lefauve assured them that GM is steadfast in its support.

Other customers worried that instead of GM becoming Saturnized, Saturn might slip into some of GM's old bad habits. "We are both becoming better, helping one another and learning from each other," Lefauve said.

He directed the doubters to the GM corporate tent here which, among other things, featured Oldsmobile's 1995 Aurora passenger car. Oldsmobile officials said they hope to use that car to launch a Saturn-type program of their own.

There were moments here that bordered on the surreal -- thousands of people standing in the middle of what had been corn and soybean fields, evangelically waving hands to the rhythm of gospel singers BeBe & CeCe Winans; applauding wildly the music of country singer Wynonna Judd; and virtually saluting Olympic gold-medalist Dan Jansen, the speed-skating champion.

Some media representatives likened the event to a Woodstock for Middle Americans, but Judd quickly set them straight. "Honey, this isn't Woodstock," she told one reporter. "The people here are sitting on the grass. They're not smoking it."

Judd said she wouldn't discuss personal matters, such as how much she was getting paid for her two-day appearance -- just as the Saturn people declined to say what they were spending for the homecoming event.

Her decision to appear at the Saturn party was smart marketing, "because this is a family event, and the kind of people who come to these events are the people who come to my concerts and buy my music," Judd said.

But what was a marketing event for some turned out to be a blessed event for others, such as Angie Weaver and Curt Natter, two young Saturn dealership employees from Pennsylvania who chose the occasion to get married before a chaplain of the United Auto Workers union.

They had planned to marry but hadn't decide when. "We were driving here from York {Pa.} when Curt asked me to marry him," Weaver said. They picked up a marriage license in Tennessee, tracked down a chaplain at the homecoming and asked Lefauve to stand in as father of the bride, "which I did happily," the Saturn president said.

The couple received a standing ovation at the Friday night homecoming concert. They also got a Tennessee-made wedding quilt -- and a new Saturn.