The History of Ensign Peak and a Scripture from Isaiah Led to the Lyrics to “High on the Mountain Top”
On July 26, 1847, just two days after the first group of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young and eight other brethren climbed the rounded mount which the prophet named Ensign Peak. As Wilford Woodruff recorded:
“We left our horses about two-thirds of the way up, and after a rocky climb we succeeded in gaining the summit. … Still wearing the travel-worn clothing from our 1,300-mile journey across the plains, our small group now stood on the peak Brigham Young had seen in vision before we left Nauvoo.
“Using a spy glass we surveyed the valley, stretching out 1,000 feet below us. On the west glistened a large lake. Streams flowing from the eastern canyons, looking like ribbons of willows, emptied into a river which Brigham Young named the Jordan River. We could see sturdy timber in the surrounding mountains with which to build our homes and barns. From this vantage point on top of the peak we began to lay plans for the future city.“
The lyrics to “High on the Mountain Top” were written by Joel Johnson, and the music was composed by Ebenezer Beesley. The lyrics came to Johnson in 1853 as he glanced up at Ensign Peak considering the words of Isaiah:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths. … He will lift up an ensign to the nations. … He lifteth up an ensign on the mountains” (Isaiah 2:2-3; 5:26; 18:3).
While Johnson wrote over 700 hymns during his lifetime, “High on the Mountain Top” is his most notable contribution to the music of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beesley, however, made a significant contribution to the music of the Church. He composed the music for nearly a dozen of the hymns in the current LDS hymnbook and was the music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for almost a decade.
Below, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs "High on the Mountain Top." For more details on the history of “High on the Mountain Top,” listen to episode 36 of the Mormon Channel's History of Hymns series.