During a solemn assembly today in the Conference Center, members of the LDS Church are expected to sustain a new First Presidency and a new apostle as part of the faith's 178th Annual General Conference.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not surprised on Feb. 4, when President Thomas S. Monson was named the church's top leader, but the announcement of who his counselors would be held some suspense, as does the expected naming of a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve during the opening session at 10 a.m.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's call as second counselor in the First Presidency marked the first time a native German has been called as a member of the faith's ruling quorum, focusing some attention on his conversion and church experience in Europe, where a majority of the church's first converts were gained in the 19th century.

And while many of the faith's current general authorities have European ancestry, LDS missionaries serving there today have far less success in finding converts than their counterparts in Central and South America, where chapels, stake centers and temples have sprouted readily during the past half-century.

Yet there are signs of some future potential for a "second harvest" of LDS conversion in Europe, according to Armand Mauss, emeritus professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, who has long examined the practices of Latter-day Saints.

Writing in the inaugural issue of the new British Journal of Mormon Studies, Mauss wonders, "Can There Be a 'Second Harvest'?: Controlling the Cost of Latter-day Saint Membership in Europe," as the title for his article.

It opens with references to comments by three LDS general authorities to a future wave of conversion in Europe, including a statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley and later published in the Ensign magazine in July 2000.

While visiting a mission conference as an apostle, then-Elder Hinckley addressed two Swedish missionaries who were finishing their service. "Let me say a few words to you that I want you to take home to Sweden." Then he lifted a glass of water and pointed to it.

"Sweden has for many years been like this glass of water — not much action. In the middle 1800s when the first missionaries came to Sweden, thousands of people joined the church. It was a great and mighty harvest. When you go home, I want you to tell the members that there will be a new harvest, a second harvest in Sweden, that will bring thousands of Swedes into the church."

Mauss then outlines the current "costs of (LDS) membership" for Europeans, who face challenges their American counterparts likely haven't encountered to the same degree.

Among them:

• Government regulation of "new religious groups," as the LDS Church is sometimes labeled.

• "Defamation and fear-mongering" that uses blogs in particular to spread spurious information about the faith, leading to suspicion about the church and its motives.

• Legal discrimination in employment, adoption, divorce and child-custody disputes because of one's faith.

• Tithes and offerings represent a much larger percentage of personal income, based on higher tax rates in Europe.

After listing ways the church is already trying to reduce the "cost of membership" for potential converts, and suggesting new approaches, Mauss wrote, "There are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of the church in Europe. Old traditions and restrictions on new religions are breaking down.

"The religious market is stirring, and the LDS brand — with its innovative combination of the familiar and the novel — will find new 'customers' in the younger generations."

Having experienced local leadership to provide stability and a new cohort of general authorities emerging who are in their 50s and 60s (and younger) and who have more experience outside North America, are more native to those countries, and are more sensitive than ever to the inappropriate intrusions of American culture into LDS Church life in other countries, will benefit the church, he wrote.

Such leaders are "more open to the counsel and advice of Saints and leaders living in Europe," he wrote, adding that such openness has extended to the field of scholarship in Mormon studies, which blossomed under President Hinckley.

Citing a November 2007 statement by the church encouraging a "deeper and broader examination of its theology, history and culture on an intellectual level" with the confidence that "Mormonism has a depth and breadth of substance that can hold up under academic scrutiny," Mauss wrote that there is hope for a spread of such discussion in Europe.

He cited the new academic journal, the recently formed European Mormon Studies Association and a growing number of scholarly conferences on religion throughout the region as indicators that the faith could become less stigmatized as it is examined more deeply.

"If LDS scholars will present papers and join in the conversations at such conferences" in Europe as they have recently done at Princeton, Yale and other high-profile American universities, "the day may come ... when there will be courses in Mormon studies at universities across Europe," he wrote, quoting Dr. O. James Stevens, a Brussels-based spokesman for the church.

Mauss projects that while such a scenario might seem a far-fetched prospect in 2007, it is no more so than a similar projection about Mormon studies in American academic would have been in 1957, referring to recently formed academic programs at Claremont, Utah State University and a growing number of courses in Mormon studies at other American universities.

On the diplomatic front, the LDS Church continues to expand its cultivation of personal relationships with a variety of ambassadors, government, civic and religious leaders as well as scholars, many of whom meet privately with members of the First Presidency or other general authorities during visits to Salt Lake City.

Recent examples include Michelle Obama, wife of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and the upcoming visit of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, later this month. Often such visitors tour not only Temple Square but the church's Humanitarian Center, where they learn about the faith's worldwide relief efforts.

By many accounts, that hosting and friendshipping continues to expand through both official and unofficial LDS channels. On Monday following this weekend's general conference, the Brigham Young University International Society will host its annual conference titled, "Meet the Mormons: Public Perception and the Global Church."

Several LDS general authorities are scheduled to make presentations on topics including "Building Bridges: Ambassador Hosting Program," "Strengthening Relationships via Diplomatic Outreach," "The Perfect Storm: LDS Media Events and the Foreign Press," and "Public Perception and Humanitarian Activities."

In a bid to further religious freedom and understanding among governments around the world, the BYU Law School houses the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, led by legal scholar Cole Durham, who is widely consulted as an expert on the intersection of faith and politics.

As vice president of the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief, Durham often attends conferences on religious freedom and oversees hosting of an annual conference at the law school that draws participants from dozens of nations.

From a faith perspective, scholars and leaders have begun to discuss what BYU religion professor Grant Underwood called "core Mormonism — (separating) what we take around the world and what is Western cultural baggage that used to be assumed as part of Mormonism."

Speaking during a conference on "Restoration Christianity" at Utah Valley State College last week, Underwood said "internationalism" is one of the modern "motifs of Mormon identity."

As the church was formed and began maturing, it went through several phases of emphasis on different points of doctrine and practice, he said, noting that all churches evolve over time.

LDS identity today includes not only an emphasis the centrality of Jesus Christ to the faith and the importance of traditional family relationships, he said, but an active program of humanitarian aid, missionary work and fostering growth of the international church.

Conference schedule

Today: General sessions, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Priesthood Session, 6 p.m.

Sunday: General sessions, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com