William Alexander was born in Londonderry on the 13th April 1824. He was the son of Robert Alexander, Rector of Aghadowey and Dorothea, daughter of Henry McClintock of Ballyarton, Co. Donegal. Educated at Tonbridge School, Kent, Alexander won an exhibition to Exeter College, Oxford, but later migrated to Brasenose, where he graduated B.A. 1847. At college he seems to have been somewhat a spendthrift and consequently fell heavily into debt. Fortuitously, he was bailed out by his parents, but promised nevertheless to repay them when he received an income (the loan was repaid shortly before he became Bishop). During his time at college it was the profound influence of the "Oxford Movement" and in particular John Henry Newman's sermons which affected young Alexander deeply. After Newman's conversion to Rome, the young student himself contemplated following his example. He took his name of the college books, wrote to his mother stating his intention of converting and then left Oxford. But questions began to arise on his journey home. Along the way Alexander seems to have been touched by the calming influence of a Quakeress. This combined with a torturous night of soul searching in a cheap hotel in Birmingham, appears to have finally resolved the doubts that were present in the mind of the future Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. Many years later he would reflect on this spiritual evolution.
"At first I was carried away by the sheer aesthetic pleasure; later, at a great crisis, I was shown by those (Newman's) sermons the hidden things of my own soul; but later again, when the ignorant undergraduate had learned to read and think, he found many drawbacks in his paragon of other years. I owe him, no less, a deep debt of gratitude for an awakening of the soul, although I came to see that he had no profound exegesis, for he was not a profound scholar"
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