SALT LAKE CITY — The meaning of the chief result of a new survey of nearly 50,000 Mormons who responded to a Facebook post is in dispute, but one finding seems clear — Latter-day Saints believe in continuing revelation.
In the fall of 2014, 48,984 Mormons responded to requests through Facebook and the blog Mormon Women Stand, which supports the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the faith's doctrine that men are ordained to priesthood offices, to take a survey that was not random as part of the Mormon Gender Issues Survey.
Organized by a Dixie State art history professor, the survey sought insight about the issue of female priesthood ordination.
Past scientific surveys by respected research outfits like Pew Research Center asked Mormons, "Do you, personally, believe that women who are dedicated members of the Church should have the opportunity to be ordained to the priesthood?"
The results were consistent: More than 90 percent of Mormons said no. Those findings should surprise no one, Mormon Women Stand leader Kathryn Skaggs said, because they show Latter-day Saints support church leaders as well as the church's doctrine and the need for revelation to change it.
The new study's authors said their survey "found similar numbers," with 72 percent opposed to and 8 percent for female ordination.
But the group of social scientists — some active LDS and some disaffected former church members — felt the old question was flawed because it "did not reflect how the ordination of women would occur in the LDS Church." So they also asked: "If the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were to receive a revelation allowing women to hold the priesthood, I would be..."
Possible responses ranged from "strongly supportive" to "strongly opposed."
More than 77 percent said that under that condition, they would support or strongly support female ordination.
"These findings," the authors said in a report released Dec. 9, "suggest that a substantial majority of members of the LDS Church would support the ordination of women if it was announced as a revelation from the leaders of the religion."
It's no surprise, Skaggs said. All it shows is that Mormons would follow the faith's prophet. In fact, the survey's authors wrote that it is notable that "more devout Mormons were more opposed to the first ordination question, but also reported that they would be more supportive of a revelation from the leaders allowing women to be ordained than less devout Mormons."
For Skaggs, that proves Mormons would support the prophet and apostles if they received a revelation, but it says little about members' feelings on ordination.
"The results are intentionally skewed to imply that a majority of active members hold a position contrary to the leaders of the church," Skaggs said. "That's absurd. The fact of the matter is, those who crafted this survey are exploiting a very sacred tenet of the Mormon faith — a devout belief in modern prophets and the revelatory process, which is what their findings actually do show. This is a distortion and a distraction that does nothing to contribute to the dialogue about women's roles in the church."
Mormon Women Stand expressed concern soon after the survey was released, saying the questions presumed LDS women are discriminated against and didn't provide answer options to fit the experiences or feelings of many Mormons.
Another blog, The Millenial Star, provided a post while the survey was underway that portrayed perceived bias in the questions.
Some Mormons said taking the survey was uncomfortable. Katy White said the questions were leading.
"You'd have two bad choices and frequently have to pick the least worst one," she said.
Jan Tolman said she read the warnings about bias in the survey, but that only created curiosity.
"Once I started the survey, I realized it wasn't asking questions I wanted to answer and didn't offer answers I wanted to answer with."
The Mormon Gender Issues Survey Group includes John Dehlin, excommunicated by his local LDS Church leaders for apostasy earlier this year; Ryan Cragun, who left the church while a graduate student and is billed as an expert in breaking the cycle of religion; and Kristy Money, a member of the board of Ordain Women, an activist group seeking female priesthood ordination.
The survey group's members plainly stated that the survey was not a random sample. Instead, they used purposive sampling and openly acknowledged its limitations.
Purposive sampling is almost always subjective and is prone to researcher bias, according to Laerd Dissertation, a guide to research for dissertations.