Mormon Tabernacle Choir Blog

Joel Johnson: The Early Church Member Wrote High on the Mountain Top

Joel Johnson was born in Grafton, Massachusetts, March 23, 1802 and grew up in a religious family. He wrote in his journal:

“I was so carefully instructed by a pious mother, that I dared not do anything that would displease the Lord or my parents. As soon as I could read, she gave me a small New Testament which I carried in my pocket. I neglected few opportunities of studying it, and often committed some of it to memory.
My attention was early drawn to the ancient ordinances and blessing of the Church. I believed, as far as my limited comprehension allowed, in baptism for the remission of sins, in laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, and in signs following the believer, as mentioned in Mark 16: 17 & 18: ‘And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’

I believed that the order established by Jesus and his apostles in the primitive church was the only true one. I sought among the sects for it, but found it not.

That all changed in 1830 in Ohio when he met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Shortly after meeting the missionaries he was baptized and called to preside over about 100 members of the Church in Amherst. Johnson would spend the rest of his life engaged in spreading the message of the restored gospel. In 1832 he served a mission to New York. In 1835 he was sent to Ohio and parts if the South.

When he arrived in Utah with other early members of the Church, Johnson was active in the organization of a government and was elected to the House of Representatives. Brigham Young sent him to assist in forming settlements, including Parowan and Enoch.

In 1853 Johnson operated a sawmill in Mill Creek Canyon as part of his church calling. It was at this time he wrote the lyrics to “High on a Mountain Top”. The lyrics came to Johnson 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 unto the nations . . . He lifteth up an ensign on the mountains. . . ’” (Isaiah 2: 2-3, 5:26, 18:3)

Below, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings “High on the Mountain Top” during a session of General Conference. Johnson’s journal contains more than 700 hymns, “High on the Mountain Top” is his most notable contribution to the LDS Hymnbook. For more details on the life of Joel Johnson and “High on the Mountain Top”, listen to Episode 36 of the Mormon Channel's History of Hymns Series.