Q: I've read that John Wesley said that he was a "hair's breadth" from Calvinism. What did Wesley mean by, and what was the context of, that statement?
A: The phrase "a hair's breadth" was a common 18th century English idiom that is scattered throughout the writings of John Wesley. While this particular idiom was used in different circumstances, the specific context in question does contain a few dominant threads that make clear what Wesley meant when he declared that he came within a "'hair's breadth' of Calvinism."
In the Minutes of Some Late Conversations (1745), a part of the query was over how close the truth of the gospel is to Calvinism. John Wesley replied that it comes "within a hair's breadth." When pressed further, Wesley believed we come to the "very edge of Calvinism" when we ascribe all good to the free grace of God, deny all natural free will and all power antecedent to grace, as well as excluding all merit from humankind, even when done by the grace of God.
Twenty years later, (1765) in a letter to his friend, John Newton, Wesley makes it clear regarding the doctrine of justification that he does not differ "a hair's breadth" from John Calvin. In the context of that comment, Wesley reminds his friend that the real doctrine in dispute between them is Christian perfection, which is why he and his brother, Charles, opposed with all of their strength the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, not merely as theological opinion, but as a dangerous mistake that subverts the foundation of Christian experience.
Finally, it could be said that the distinctive nature and legacy of John Wesley's theology is found in the nuances that come within "a hair's breadth." This is the spirit of the middle way in Wesley's Church of England. —KSM