How are the mighty fallen

‘Whatever else may not agree in this disagreeing world, a verb must agree with its noun.’ Ephraim smacked his fist into his palm and then laughed. His new patron, President Pendleton of Bethany College, had the grace and perception to laugh with the just-arrived professor of Hebrew, Greek and Biblical exegesis.

From dry, spare prairie to cradling green hills, the jolt in setting was as if the Epsteins had been picked up and put down in the panhandle of West Virginia by a tornado. After the bitterness in Dakota Territory Ephraim was buoyed with vindication. From being founding president of a university there the house, pay and privileges here are a diminishment from his previous glory, but now he has utter academic freedom. A new book project, a new geography, and, aged 56, yet again a new life awaits — with the loyal Helena and their four daughters to support.

Once again Ephraim lands on his feet, with a post at Bethany College: ideal for him as it was founded by free-thinking Disciples of Christ who believed in no sects, no denominations. His literate and independent style of Christianity surely won’t get him in trouble here. But why not support his family by doctoring? In Chapter 34, Resurrection, in the seventh year of mourning for his little son he still feels unable to return to practice. Bethany College, click  here , flourishes to this day. The home of its second President, William K Pendleton, had been a station in the underground railroad for escaping slaves some 25 years before Ephraim’s time at Bethany. 

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Political chicanery

Ousted! He was Founding President of the University of Dakota, but the second academic year was bittersweet for Ephraim. He could not regret that the institution was flourishing and his imprint was on every aspect of its success. But the Board of Regents of the university wanted a different president.

He campaigned for it, was invited to set it up and run it in 1882 until (in his own words) ‘sectarian and political chicanery ousted me.’

From the now University of South Dakota archives: [he] ‘held controversial religious views. Eventually Epstein was removed as president due to political motives by certain members of the Regents of Education when the territory assumed control of the university in 1883. There was also speculation that Dr Epstein had amassed a significant debt for contracting a house in Vermillion.’

A Baptist historical report says: ‘Many friends of the institution deeply regretted the discourtesy and ingratitude exhibited towards its founder.’

Pictured here, from usd.edu archives, the University of Dakota President’s House, North Yale Street, Vermillion. Was this the cause of ‘significant debt’? Normally in this blog-of-his-life I give passages from my biographical fiction, but this true event may yet be contentious today! So I have quoted here from the sources I found, and had a wonderful time imagining our way into Ephraim’s devastating experience (and the birth of another daughter, my grandmother Naomi Epstein) in Chapter 33, The Stone Rejected by the Builders. Will he recover from this? Oh yes — but how, where?

Ephraim was hooked

Ephraim was hooked. Education, fine minds, the good of all — this work had to be done. He offered to join the campaign to start the University of Dakota, for his Baptist circuits provided an ideal opportunity to build support. Mr Kettering gladly welcomed the respected, highly-educated Dr Epstein. The founding trustees were tough, intelligent men and Ephraim savoured working with them as equals conferring over petitions, deadlines and charter requirements. With a cause to fight for Ephraim became fully his old self. His dispirited determination ceased, his withdrawals to his desk were now charged with energy. Helena rejoiced in his zeal; at last her husband was the confident, enthusiastic man she had fallen in love with.

Finally, two years after the awful death of his little son, Ephraim regains purpose in life, though he still feels unable to practice medicine. In Chapter 31, Orion Rising, his engagement in the new cause of a university for the raw Dakota Territory is interrupted by the devastating Great Flood of 1881. By mid-April 400 miles of the Missouri River had been inundated and the worst destruction is in the 25 miles between Yankton, where Ephraim lives, and Vermillion — the town designated as home to the university. The whole settlement of Vermillion has been washed away. Lesser men would be fazed, but Ephraim?

 

Only one offer

Only one offer comes of Ephraim’s application to teach or preach: from Yankton, capital of Dakota Territory. Back to the wild West that was so wrong for him in Kansas, and with new worries. Only three years earlier Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse slaughtered General Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn. Though the Sioux Lakota tribes have now been driven back there are the realities of the territory’s distances and its climate: droughts, bitter winters, searing summers, tornadoes, locusts, prairie fires.

Unable to practice medicine because he still blames himself for his child’s death, Ephraim accepts with grim determination. Yankton is the base for a new frontier, a port for steamboats on the Missouri river. In 1879 Ephraim, the pregnant Helena and two-year-old Frieda arrive by train. Homesteaders live in sod huts, immigrants and prospectors flood in. However, life in the town is far from makeshift. Yankton has schools, brickworks, goods stores, breweries, hotels, banks, a court house, a daily newspaper and ten churches. Ephraim’s post: pastor of the Baptist church, the longest established Protestant congregation in the capital.

In A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Chapter 30) fifty-year-old Ephraim buckles down to the compromises of maturity. His long rides over the prairie on horseback impose solitude and time to solve a Hebrew puzzle that challenges Bible scholarship. Embers stir and burst into firey zeal in the next chapter.