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Born in Pennsylvania to a devout Presbyterian family, J. Howard Pew was taught at an early age the value of freedom. His father, Joseph Newton Pew, with Edward O. Emerson, established in 1876 what eventually became known as Sun Oil Company. After graduating from Grove City College, young Howard went to work for his father at Sun Oil and later became its President. Once retired, he continued to influence the company as member of the board, and later Chairman. Under his leadership, Sun Oil grew nearly 40 times over.

Howard became one of the most vocal and articulate defenders of freedom in America. “If you believe in freedom for the individual,” he once wrote, “you must be opposed to any encroachment of government on the rights of the individual.” If you believe that everyone should have an opportunity to receive an education, you cannot support government controlled education; if you support the free market, you cannot support government price controls. Pew was very critical of President Lyndon Johnson's “War on Poverty” because federal welfare programs could only breed more poverty by undermining the work ethic and making more people dependent on the state for their existence.

He believed that for liberty to be destroyed, the church must first be suppressed. He told the National Council of Churches in 1950, “We must strive constantly for honesty in government, in politics, in business, and in our private lives. We must rededicate ourselves to the service of God, and be ready at all times to give a 'reason for the faith that is in us.'”