[The following passages from two old Etonians help us perceive the unusual courage of the reforming Thomas Arnold of Rugby, who not only preached weekly to students but urged that religious people had to act as reformists and not conservatives [GPL].
Arthur Duke Coleridge
he religious teaching in my schooldays was not a strong point, either in or outside Eton Chapel. Sermons so inaudibly delivered as to be, in some instances, little more than dumbshow, a hebdomadal dose of Seeker in school, varied with the meagre commentaries of Burton and Valpy on the Greek Testament in pupilroom, were a spiritual diet not robust enough for intended divines or Christian heroes. Eton was near enough to Oxford to be affected by mutterings of the great Church upheaval, and the phases of the Oxford movement were absorbing topics of interest to more than one of the assistant masters. Hodgson, our Provost, formerly Archdeacon of Derby, a high and dry divine, with no taste for controversy or faction, whether dominated by Newman or Arnold, kept rigorously aloof from the vexed questions which agitated many at Oxford and some few at Cambridge; and our headmaster, Dr. Hawtrey, a man of letters, and the friend of literary men, was indifferent as Gallio to the 'Credo in Newmamim' watchword which awoke the suspicion of some alarmed Protestants in the cloisters of Eton. We boys had no Goulburn or Vaughan, still less a Lightfoot or Westcott [standard explanatory biblical commentaries], to keep us straight. Plain expositions and lectures on the Greek Testament would have been a more wholesome study for some of us than Archdeacon Manning's sermons, which were too frequently substituted, in my tutor's pupil-room, for the ordinary subjects of private business. These sermons, with all their beauty of style and language, veiled but imperfectly the restless and dissatisfied mind of their author, and I am persuaded that . . . they were perilous reading for boys of an emotional turn. We attached a dangerous importance to them, and when the Archdeacon 'went over [and converted to Roman Catholicism],' his flag followers saw their mistake. [166-67]
Sir H. C. Maxwell Lyte
It seems incredible that there should ever have been an entire absence of religious instruction at the greatest school in England; yet such, from all accounts, must have been the case at Eton until about eighty years ago. According to Mr. Gladstone, "the actual teaching of Christianity was all but dead, though happily none of its forms had been surrendered." This was less the fault of individual tutors than of the established system, which practically debarred a sincerely pious man like John Bird Sumner, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, from saying a single word about God to his pupils. The establishment of the Newcastle Scholarship enabled James Chapman, John Wilder, and Edward Coleridge to substitute, a lesson in the Greek Testament for a repetition of Virgil or Juvenal on Sunday mornings. Their efforts and example bore fruit in course of time, but Sunday can hardly be said to have been observed as a day of rest at any period during Keate's reign, the hour between two and three o'clock especially being spent in a manner which would now be considered disgraceful. 
Coleridge, Arthur Duke. Eton in the Forties by an Old Colleger. 2nd ed., rev. London: Richard Bentley, 1898.
Lyte, H. C. Maxwell, Sir. A history of Eton College, 1440-1910. 4th ed., rev. London: Macmillan, 1911.
Last modified 19 July 2006