Come to Zion, come to Zion: Utah park abounds in religious references

Utah park abounds in religious references

Published: Saturday, May 22 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

A pedestrian shuttle makes its way thorough Zion National Park, where limited parking spurred creation of the service.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

ZION NATIONAL PARK — Zion is a unique national park where visitors receive a limited biblical and Book of Mormon education as part of their standard tour — whether they want it or not.

That's because Zion is steeped in religious overtones — since the park's essential history and many of its names come from scripture.

Ride the Zion shuttle buses and audio recordings recite to all passengers some of this religious history of the park, referring to the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

For a few minutes, its reminiscent of a Temple Square tour. You'd be hard-pressed to find another national park so steeped in religious references.

Lest anyone jump to the conclusion that all of Zion National Park's named features stemmed from influences by Utah's predominant religion — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — don't overlook that three of the park's most popular features are not Mormon-named.

Angels Landing, a popular hiking destination, was named by the Rev. Frederick Vining of Ogden in 1916. He believed angels would never land on nearby Great White Throne — a seat for deity — but would instead reverently pause at the foot, to pay their obeisance, from Angels Landing.

Vining is also credited with naming the Great White Throne.

Most times he's also credited for naming the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), though Claude Hirschi, an early Mormon stake president in the area, is also said by at least one source to have affixed those titles.

Kolob Canyons and Kolob Arch get their titles from the Pearl of Great Price, an LDS book of scripture, that mentions a star, Kolob, as nearest the residence of God.

Mount Moroni is named for a Book of Mormon prophet.

Zion is simply a national park rife with connotations and descriptions of that variety that seem so appropriate to such an inspiring place.

For example, there's also the North and South Guardian Angels, Tabernacle Dome, the East and West Temples, the Altar of Sacrifice, The Pulpit and Cathedral Mountain.

The park's overall name too has roots in the Bible. Zion, a Hebrew word referring to a place of safety or refuge, was given to the canyon by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s, according to the park's official website by the National Park Service.

The name of the majestic gorge with sheer sandstone walls half-a-mile high seems to fit so well that its origin is rarely questioned anymore. But in fact, Zion has been known by at least half-a-dozen other titles.

A past reference in National Geographic magazine reminds us the Zion name was not an instant fixture. A map supplement in the October 1992 issue mentions that Brigham Young, the Mormon Church's second president, emphasized to early settlers in the Springdale area that the canyon was not Zion, despite their heavenly descriptions.

So, some of the settlers started sarcastically calling the area "Not Zion" in the 1860s.

Isaac Behunin was actually the first to settle there. In January 1862 he built a cabin in Springdale. In the summer of 1863 he raised a one-room cabin not far from where Zion Lodge is now. Behunin also built a canal, planted fruit trees and grew cane and garden vegetables in Zion. Behunin Canyon northwest of the Emerald Pools is named in his honor.

Behunin may have been the first to use the name by which it is today world renowned. He called the canyon "Little Zion." Other reports indicate the area was also referred to as "the Heavenly City of God" in the 1860s.

According to research by the Washington County chapter of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, it is not exactly known what the name Zion referred to. It might have been related to the peaceful security settlers felt in Zion Canyon because the Indians stayed away from there or because the towering walls offered natural protection.

Another possible derivation may be from the United Order, a Mormon pioneer system of sharing all things in common, that was prevalent in southern Utah at the time. This could have made for a utopia — a Zion — at least for a short time.

Joseph S. Black, another Mormon pioneer, followed the Virgin River into Zion and was so impressed by the natural beauty that he provided what seemed to be unbelievable descriptions of the area to other settlers. Some of the more skeptical of them dubbed the place "Joseph's Glory" in reference to what they thought were his exaggerated claims.

Explorer John Wesley Powell visited Zion in 1872 and applied some Indian names to the gorges there, such as "Mukuntuweap" (meaning "Straight Canyon") to the North Fork of the Virgin River and "Parunuweap" ("Water that Roars") to the East Fork.

But even Powell saw religion there, since he named the East and West Temples.

In 1909, part of Zion was set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Howard Taft. By 1918, President Woodrow Wilson had enlarged the area and changed the name back to Zion because the Mukuntuweap name was an unpopular title locally.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com

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