Validity of a clinical test can be defined as the extent to which the test actually assesses what it is intended to assess. In order to investigate the validity of manual physical assessment of the spine, it is therefore essential to establish what physical therapists intend to assess when they are applying these tests. The aims of this study were to (1) establish what manual physical therapists are intending to assess while applying passive intervertebral motion tests; and (2) examine the face validity and content validity for manual physical assessment of the spine. We surveyed 1502 members of the national manual physical therapist organisations of New Zealand and the United States of America using a web-based survey instrument. Sixty-six percent of 466 respondents believed passive accessory intervertebral motion (PAIVM) tests were valid for assessing quantity of segmental motion, and 76% believed passive physiologic intervertebral motion (PPIVM) tests were valid for assessing quantity of segmental motion. Ninety-eight percent of manual physical therapists base treatment decisions at least in part on the results of segmental motion tests. Quality of resistance to passive segmental motion was considered of greater importance than quantity of kinematic motion during PAIVM tests, while the quality of complex kinematic motion was considered of greater importance than quantity of displacement kinematics during PPIVM tests. Manual physical therapists accept the face validity of manual physical assessment of spinal segmental motion to a great extent, however a minority voice scepticism. Content validity is dominated by concepts of segmental kinematics and the force-displacement relationship. Intent of assessment does, however, vary widely between therapists. These data will inform the design of concurrent validity studies. Further work is recommended to increase consistency of intent, methodology and terminology in manual physical assessment of the spine.