John Howard Pew was a successful oil entrepreneur who dedicated his philanthropy to serving the Presbyterian Church, funding higher education, and advancing the principles of a free society. Born into a devout family in 1882, the second son of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph Newton Pew, J. Howard graduated from Grove City College at age 18. He studied at MIT, then joined his father and older brother at the Sun Oil Company.
Pew was a talented engineer. His father assigned him to find a use for the unwanted black residue from refining Texas crude. “The young scientist didn’t disappoint his father,” writes a historian of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “He developed a lubricating oil with an extremely low cooling point; it became an international success under the name Sun Red Stock. J. Howard’s laboratory work also yielded the first commercially successful petroleum asphalt, called Hydrolene.”
In 1912, J. N. Pew died, and J. Howard took over the company along with younger brother Joseph Newton Pew Jr. For 35 years, J. Howard presided over Sun Oil’s rise to national prominence in the oil business. Under his leadership, Sun Oil vastly extended its interests, eventually including refineries, pipelines, oilfields, shipbuilding, and mining.
Pew had a natural instinct for anticipating current events. He prepared for the market crashes of the 1930s, and was proud that no Sun Oil employee was laid off or given a pay cut during the Depression. Sensing another war in Europe, in 1933 Pew started to sell off Sun’s investments on the Continent. In 1937, Pew opened the world’s first large-scale, commercial catalytic cracking plant. During World War II, Sun’s shipbuilding plants turned out 250 vessels—40 percent of America’s tankers.
The Pews’ conservative views were strengthened by the Supreme Court’s 1911 decision to break up the Standard Oil Company under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. “It reinforced their conviction that industry thrives best when markets and competition are free,” writes one historian. Pew held free-market convictions throughout his life. The austere man would bristle, however, if anyone suggested that his beliefs were anything less than disinterested. He vigorously criticized the New Deal as a “government cartel” worse than any “private cartel,” but he insisted that his “attack on the New Deal has not been prompted by materialistic considerations, but rather a desire to preserve in America an opportunity for coming generations.” After the Second World War, Pew also opposed price controls, arguing that “free prices are the regulators of American industry.”
To that end, Pew became involved in organizations that promoted free-market causes. He was a board member of the Foundation of Economic Education, led by Leonard Read (famous for his “I, Pencil” story that illustrates the working of the invisible hand). In joining FEE, Pew became part of the nexus of conservative and libertarian funders, organizations, and thinkers who helped to challenge the New Deal economic and political consensus. Pew didn’t always agree with FEE’s positions—he tussled with the board over FEE’s anti-tariff perspective—but he found what biographer Mary Sennholz has called “a remnant of kindred souls . . . who shared with him a great concern about the future of individual freedom and the private property order.” Pew also supported emerging conservative think tanks, such as the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.
Pew’s philanthropy extended to other causes as well—in particular education and civic organizations. But his “most enduring object of philanthropy,” as Sennholz puts it, was Grove City College, his alma mater. “I hardly remember a time when I did not know Grove City College,” Pew reminisced. He joined its board in 1912, and served until his death—including four decades as chairman. Pew visited frequently, funded numerous projects on campus, and celebrated Grove City’s conservative principles and reputation for independence. “To teach this appreciation of our liberty and the recognition of the forces that threaten it, will always be the foremost mission of this college,” he said. Pew supported dozens of other colleges as well, especially a number of historically black universities.
After he left the helm of Sun Oil in 1947, J. Howard devoted more of his time and money to religious organizations. “In the years that followed World War II,” writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein, “his most abiding preoccupation was rescuing the Protestant church in America from what he saw as the dangerous influence of liberal ministers.”
A lifelong member of the mainline Presbyterian Church, Pew had a multi-pronged approach to his religious philanthropy. First, he participated in church debates, serving as president of the church’s board of trustees, chair of the National Lay Committee, and opposing what he called “the same ideological mistake as was made by communism: that of attempting to change society by changing man’s environment.” Inspired by the Reformed doctrine that church councils should not take up secular causes, he fought church resolutions to endorse collective bargaining, promote birth control, and oppose capital punishment.
Pew also funded the then-emerging “parachurch” institutions of the evangelical movement. He gave millions to merge two seminaries to create Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is today actively evangelical and the largest seminary in the Northeast. He contributed $150,000 to launch Christianity Today magazine. He supported Billy Graham’s ministry, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the International Congress on World Evangelization.
Finally, Pew sought to educate Christian ministers about the perils of left-wing politics, and encouraged church leaders to focus on mission and evangelizing. He helped to build up Spiritual Mobilization, which sought to counterbalance the New Deal surge toward centralization and redistribution of income. It involved business executives in lay church leadership and distributed books like F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom to clergymen. Pew later helped to found (and contributed millions to) the Christian Freedom Foundation, which sent the Christian Economics newsletter twice a month to 180,000 ministers.
Pew did not achieve to his own satisfaction the goal of saving the Presbyterian Church from further decline. In his ecumenical work, however, he helped to create an evangelical infrastructure, from seminaries to publications, that would support new churches and soon eclipse the mainline in membership.
Pew and his wife, Helen, lived simply. They are said to have given 90 percent of their income away. In addition to the gifts they made during their lifetime, Pew and his brother and sisters contributed shares of Sun Oil to create the Pew Memorial Foundation, which would be dedicated to their ideals and in memory of their parents. In subsequent years, family members would establish separate funds under the umbrella of the family trust; the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust was created in 1957. These together became known as the Pew Charitable Trusts. When J. Howard died in 1971, nearly all of his remaining $100 million was given to the Freedom Trust, which joined the $900 million (at the time) then held in the various other Pew trusts.
Pew gave a very specific mandate to his Freedom Trust:
To acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the vital need to maintain and preserve a limited form of government in the United States as intended by our forebears and expressed by them in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—to point out the dangerous consequences that result from an exchange of our American priceless heritage of freedom and self-determination, for the false promises of socialism and a planned economy . . . . and to inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice and death by which freedom of the individual was won.
To acquaint the American people with the values of a free market—the dangers of inflation—the need for a stable monetary standard—the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people—and the necessity of maintaining the rights as provided in the Bill of Rights.
To promote recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom and to support and expound the philosophy that we must first have faith in God before we can enjoy the blessings of liberty—for God is the author of liberty—and to bring about the realization that our failure to fight for the preservation of our liberty is a crime, the punishment for which is servitude.
This charter was honored to the letter for the first few years after Pew’s death, but starting in 1977, it was quickly eroded in pursuit of more conventional and left-leaning directions. Recently, the head of the Pew Charitable Trusts could only say that J. Howard “was a man of strong convictions and his successors on our board are following in his tradition by having strong convictions,” adding that “times are different now and I don’t think we really know how J. Howard Pew’s views would have played out.”
And so, despite his clear statement of philanthropic purposes, the funds Pew placed in trust are being applied to very different aims.
~ Evan Sparks