By the Albuquerque Journal

SALT LAKE CITY - Mormons must stand together to stay strong as their numbers grow, church leaders said Sunday at the faith's 170th semiannual General Conference.

"As I look into the faces of the thousands upon thousands who are gathered in this new and beautiful hall, and then think of the hundreds of thousands who are assembled across the world listening to this conference, I am almost overcome with feelings of gratitude for the great unity that exists among us," said church president Gordon B. Hinckley.

Elder Henry B. Eyring, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said the church is leaning more heavily on new members than ever before. Last year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints baptized 306,171 new converts around the world, bringing the total number of members to more than 10.7 million. Some have worried that the speedy expansion could dilute the church's basic principles.

"Someone who knows organizations in the world might predict failure for a rapidly growing church depending on so many novice lay members," Eyring told the estimated 21,000 members who gathered in the church's new conference center in Salt Lake City. "Even those called have felt some apprehension."

But Eyring and others said the faithful could find strength in numbers. "Brothers and sisters, you are not alone. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, millions of people stand beside you," said Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, also of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"When we work together to benefit those in need, we eliminate the weakness of one person standing alone and substitute the strength of many serving together," Wirthlin said.

Elder Thomas S. Monson, counselor to the First Presidency, told of being a young naval officer left to stand alone as Catholics, Protestants and Jews filed out to religious services. He said he was relieved to find other Mormons standing with him before a puzzled officer.

"He said, 'And what do you men call yourselves?' He used the plural - men," Monson said. "In unison, we said 'We're Mormons.'"

Elder Earl C. Tingey, of the Presidency of the Seventy, echoed the theme by focusing on widows, calling on members to help ease their loneliness and telling the story of five elderly widows who drove to church together.

"They entered the meeting together and sat down beside each other," Tingey said. They seemed to draw strength and protection from one another. I felt the goodness of their noble lives as I watched their tender association with one another."

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